29 October 2013

Engaging our future generation of researchers is critical to the innovation of our nation, but how do we ensure that today’s children are interested in becoming tomorrow’s researchers and possibly a Nobel Laureate or Eureka Prize winner?

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology has invested in a creative new approach to entice our children to take an interest in research, science and the importance of plant biology.

In a world first the Centre has turned understanding complicated cell biology into child’s play by enlarging a plant cell one million times and turning it into a jumping castle called Bio-Bounce.

Bio-Bounce is the world’s biggest and bounciest cell: a 10 metre by 13 metre inflated structure which helps its visitors discover how cells work. Centre staff use short activities to explain to children (and adults) what genes are, how they work, where photosynthesis happens and how this links to plant growth, energy systems, survival and crop yield.

One of its most recent visits was to Floriade, in Australia’s capital city, Canberra.

Director of the Centre, Professor Ian Small, said the concept to develop Bio-Bounce followed a struggle to communicate complex research to the public, most of which dealt with the microscopic scale inside cells.

“It's so hard for people to visualise and understand things that they can't see,” Professor Small said.

“We wanted people to get inside a cell, so we designed and built a gigantic inflated structure that incorporates everything we need to demonstrate the molecular processes inside plant cells,” Professor Small said.

The Bio-Bounce programme was designed to increase public understanding of what cells and genes are; how they work; and how they contribute to making the food we harvest from crops.

“The great thing about Bio-Bounce is that a person can become a part of the cell. With friends you can recreate a whole sequence of cellular processes. It makes it much easier to see how a cell works—and, therefore, much easier to understand,” Professor Small said.

The gigantic plant cell has been squished and bumped by over 14 000 members of the public to date this year and it is striking a cord with people, young and old, promoting the benefits of science.

“We want to enthuse people about science and to create advocates for science discovery, leading to more people studying science, investing in science and supporting scientific research,” Professor Small said.

“At several events (where Bio-Bounce has appeared) we’ve surveyed the first impressions of the participants and got some great feedback.

“Pretty much everyone enjoys the experience, but the important aspect is that they are learning—after the Bio-Bounce experience, 95% of the participants correctly say that plants have genes, and over 80% say they have a much better idea of how plants work and what factors affect crop yields.

“We’re particularly happy that many students that say they weren’t interested in science still enjoyed the experience and several even commented that they might now consider studying science in the future,” Professor Small said.

Asked what the one message is that he wants children and parents to walk away with after visiting bio-bounce, the response from Professor Small is simple.

“Plants produce the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe—they’re essential for our future.

“Knowing how they work helps farmers get the best out of them, and that’s why research into plants is so important.”

If you would like more information about the Bio-Bounce programme please contact the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.

Top Image courtesy: ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology. Alice Trend with a group of children exploring the Bio-Bounce.


Above: a word cloud displaying the comments made by children who utilised the Bio-Bounce. Image kindly provided by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.