Plant Biology

Susan Singer, Biology, Carleton College


This is an interdisciplinary course that introduces students to the basic concepts of plant biology in the context of sustainable food and agriculture systems. The course is taught in an interactive format with problem solving, a range of field trips, and numerous writing assignments. The course culminates with a paper that addresses a plant based problem from multiple perspectives, integrating science, environmental challenges, economics, and ethics.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a mid-level course that requires an introductory biology course. The course serves a mix of biology, geology, and environmental studies majors. It fulfills requirements for both the biology and the food and agriculture track of the environmental studies major.

Course Content:

Plant Biology is designed to provide students with a broad overview of how plants work from anatomical, morphological, physiological, and genetic perspectives. Environmental and technological issues frame explorations of plant function. A major goal is for students to integrate their growing understanding of plant biology with analyses of global issues, including hunger, human health, and loss of arable land. An academic civic engagement project spans the course and allows students to translate their understanding of plant morphology and nutrition for third graders in a way that is aligned with state standards in science.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to solve problems involving water stress, interactions with other organisms, nutrient access, and plant development by applying their understanding of plant anatomy, morphology, physiology, genetics, and molecular biology. Students will be able to critically analyze arguments for different approaches to sustainable agriculture and feeding the world in writing. Students will be able to translate their understanding of plant biology into a curricular unit accessible to third graders and aligned with state standards.

Course Features:

Students integrate reading assignments and visits to a cereal production facility and a large agricultural biotechnology research facility to explore sustainability of agriculture that focuses on plant interactions with abiotic and biotic elements. In class, students do extensive group problem solving ranging from basic physiology and genetic engineering problems to short cases focused on plant-soil interactions in an agricultural setting. Students develop a game and curricular unit for third graders and implement it in different elementary schools in town.

Course Philosophy:

This course was designed to meet the needs of both biology and environmental studies students in an interdisciplinary context. A major goal was to create an environment where students with varying and strongly held beliefs about a range of agricultural and plant breeding practices could delve into the evidence and enhance their ability to engage others with different perspectives an evidence-based discussions.


Assessment takes place in four ways. Students have four, short analytic papers that are written over the course of the term and prepare them for the interdisciplinary 10 page paper due at the end of the class. There are also quizzes that build on the problem solving skills developed during the course. The students are assessed on several different aspects of their academic civic engagement project to both provide formative assessment and ensure the quality of the material being brought out into the community.


Plant Biology Syllabus (Microsoft Word 76kB Jun21 12)

References and Notes:

Plant Biology by Smith, Coupland, Dolan, Harberd, Jones, Martin, Sablowski, and Amey (Garland Science, 2010).
A Photographic Atlas for the Botany Laboratory, 6th edition by Rushfort, Robbins, Crawely, and Van de Graaff (Morton, 2012).
A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton (New Society Publishers, 2009).

Reading resources vary for each student. Working with one of the college librarians, a web based resource is built to accompany a lesson on how to access and use resources from different social science fields, biology and geology, and philosophy and ethics databases. Students submit an annotated bibliography and paper proposal early on so the instructor can work with each student to ensure the breadth, depth, and quality of the readings the students are engaging.