If shown a photo that includes an animal and plants, most people are going to notice the animal first and overlook the plants.

This phenomenon is known as plant blindness, a form of cognitive bias that makes humans less likely to recognize the presence and importance of plants in their everyday lives. For plant science researchers and educators, plant blindness is an important challenge to overcome.

Plant blindness impacts our ability to effectively communicate plant science to students, potential funders, and policymakers. As a result, the idea of “botanical literacy” has been developed in an attempt to address plant blindness. Botanical literacy strives to determine a baseline for what and how students should learn about plant science. However, botanical literacy does not place particular focus on topics that students are interested in, and thus fails to address the lack of interest and excitement in plants that is central to the issue of plant blindness.

Kathryn Parsley, M.S., and her PhD advisor Dr. Jaime Sabel, University of Memphis, aim to make students excited about plants. Kathryn has developed an alternative term to botanical literacy, called “functional botanical literacy” (FBL), which she defines as the knowledge necessary for students to be able to make sound scientifically-informed decisions about plant-related socioscientific issues. Functional botanical literacy encourages plant science education through the use of plant-human links, which inspire students to develop interest in plant species. Kathryn recently spoke on this subject at a special seminar at the Danforth Center, where she presented her research on developing methods to measure plant blindness, botanical literacy, and functional botanical literacy, and creating tools to support undergraduate biology students in the pursuit of plant science education.

Now, the methods that Kathryn and Jaime developed to measure plant blindness are being used by our Education Research Laboratory (ERL). Throughout December, the ERL hosted more than 200 students on field trips to the Danforth Center as part of a plant blindness and botanical literacy study in collaboration with Kathryn and Jaime. Students participated in plant blindness assessments and a variety of other scientific projects.

With the data obtained from these assessments, the ERL hopes to gain a better understanding of the challenges presented by plant blindness in students in the greater St. Louis region, and how to overcome these challenges in order to provide effective plant science education opportunities.