Image: Charles Doussault, ‘A class in the open’, wood engraving, approx. 1842.

Reaching the masses: true botanical evangelism

Image: Charles Doussault, ‘A class in the open’, wood engraving, approx. 1842.
Image: Charles Doussault, ‘A class in the open’, wood engraving, approx. 1842.

I don’t know what the average enrolment on a first-year university plant science course is, but I can guess that it isn’t more than 5000. But 5009 is the number who had signed up to Prof. Daniel Chamovitz and Aviva Katz series of ‘classes’ intriguingly entitled, ‘What a Plant Knows (and other things you didn’t know about plants)’ by 3.14 pm on 20th July 2013. That number of students won’t fit into a single lecture theatre, nor even a single campus, but is comprised of individuals throughout the world who are taking the course via Coursera, ‘an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free, and whose technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds’. The instructors are both at Tel Aviv University and the course is based on Chamovitz’s recent book What a plant knows, backed up with basic biology information found in Campbell Biology. The course runs for 7 weeks from 1st October 2013 and should occupy 7–9 hours per week (and is FREE). You will learn how plants sense their environment, and how scientists study plant senses, and be exposed to both classic and modern experiments in plant biology, and may even start to question what defines us as humans. Grades will be based on quizzes (on the video lectures and reading assignments), and a final exam. So, what background do you need to consider enrolling? ‘Curiosity about nature and our place in the world’ is all. Why should we be excited about this venture? Because it is tackling in a most direct – and wide-reaching! – way the pernicious cult of zoochauvinism (or animal chauvinism, ‘the widespread tendency of biologists to consider it more important to study and teach about animals than about plants’; ‘a bias for animals and against plants’ ), which contributes to the condition known as ‘plant blindness‘ (‘the widespread lack of awareness of plants and neglect of plants both in biology education and in the general population’). Ambitious? Certainly! Does it do its job? We’ll have to wait until the end of the course, but what a great initiative. More power to the Israeli team!

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]


  • Thanks Nigel for the support! Embarrassingly, I’ve never heard the term zoochauvinism, but that is exactly what I’m trying to fight (esp in my own university…). Hope others will join me as I think there is an interest that we’ve missed out on. BTW, registration is over 30k! We’ll see how many remain after next weeks lecture on phytochrome and phototropin 🙂

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