Day 7 update

If you recall, I planted this group of fastplants last Sat.  (That was day 0).  Today is day seven.  Here’s a poor photo from Day 5


Note that in some cups there are way more than the two plan to raise per cup and some cups have none.  I have only a few ideas why the cups with no plants turned out that way.  I did check out the fertilizer/water levels on Thurs. and decided to top off the reservoirs with fresh fertilizer solution even though they didn’t need it quite yet.  I added enough of the fertilizer mix to bring the solution up to almost the bottom of the planting cups.  The planting systems went from Sat. to Thurs. with essentially no care–for the first week.  This will not possible going forward now that the plants are growing.  Next weekend they will be big enough that the plants will drain the reservoirs every 2-3 days.  I’ll need to be vigilant.

On day six, I decided to thin the plants.  Thinning the plants simply meant cutting off select plants in each cup until only two remained.  I did do something I usually don’t do with my students–I transplanted some of the excess from one cup to cups without any sprouted plants.  Normally, this is beyond the skills of most students (and beyond mine as well).  I just thought I’d experiment a bit.  Sometimes when I am fishing, I forget to take photos of my experience.   Yesterday, I was concentrating so much on the thinning process and transplanting that I simply forgot to take an progress photos.

Here’s what the plants look like on day 7.



Looks like they have survived the thinning/transplanting process just fine.  Note that most are now straight up.  I rotated the planting systems, yesterday as well.  Check out how hairy some of these plants are.  Maybe I’ll do a selection for hairy but the best time for that would be tomorrow or Monday (day 8 or 9)  I don’t think I will be available to do all the counting necessary.  We will see.


More plants with quite a few hairs.  You should also note that most of the plants have at least on of the true leaves now and several plants have more that one.  You can also see in this image one of the plants I thinned yesterday along with some of the cut stems.




Now here is a common problem.  Take a close look at the plant in the foreground–the one with the large cotyledons.  What do you notice?  Look closely, it looks like there are no growing, true leaves.  This happens and could be the start of an interesting set of questions.



Here a shot to show how close I still have the lights.  If I don’t come into the lab before Tues.  These plants will be growing up in the lights.  Now that I look at this, I’m wishing I had raised the lights just a bit.

Day Four–an Update

Here it is Wed., day 4 of the this time through a Fastplant lifecycle.  I planted last Sat. which is not a day that works in a classroom.  I used to plant mostly on Mondays to time out the life cycle so that the students could pollinate their plants on days 14-16.  We’ll see how the timing works out this time.  I have done nothing to the plants or the systems–no water, no fertilizer, and I haven’t moved them.  Here’s what they looked like this afternoon.


and a close-up:


Note that despite the fine set of lights that I have for growing the plants on the outside edges are leaning in to the middle and they are all ready starting to elongate compared to those growing in the middle of the light system.  If I don’t change anything this could grow into a bit of a problem.  BTW, poor light is a big challenge for many trying to grow Fastplants.   Many folks will try one or two fluorescents or have their plants quite a ways from the light source thinking everything is fine since the plants are growing.  I’ve seen this many times when people first start growing Fastplants.  The plants grew very tall (for a Fastplant) and spindly.  They really don’t look very healthy.  Pay attention to light–it is one of the important lessons that one gets first hand when growing these plants.  There are two ways to adjust for this unequal light in this particular light system.

  1. Move the plant systems around.  This is what would happen in my classroom as students would take their plant chambers back to their desks for observations.  I’d sometimes use questions to get them to ask their own question about how long does it take a Fastplant to change direction.  Other question include what is going on here?  Why do you think they do this.  There is an entire bunch of activities on the Fastplant web site around this phenomenon.
  2. Add foil curtains to the outside of the lights to capture those wayward photons.  It is amazing how much this will change the light intensity under the lights.  Likewise, if you use other growing systems like the milk crate lighting systems be sure to line the interior of the box with foil.  It will help a lot.

I will be thinning these plants in the next day or two down to just two plants per cup.  Why?…..”that sounds like an experiment.”

Johnson County Science Cafe

Johnson County Science Cafe’

Native Snakes of Kansas + More

Speakers: Dan and Grace Ann Johnson
Date: September 3, 2013

Time: 6:30 pm

Location: Coaches Bar and Grill, 9089 W. 135th Street, one block west of 135th and Antioch, south side of 135th St.

Dan Johnson and his daughter, Grace Anne will bring their live collection of native snakes to the September meeting. Some of their collection was acquired on field trips with the Kansas Herpetological Society and others captured on personal trips. There will be other creepy crawlies present as well.
Dan has had a life long interest in “herps”. His original major at Kansas State University was Wildlife Biology. Although, he graduated with a degree in Business, he has always had a special interest in the outdoors. He is Past President of the Kansas Herpetological Society, Chairman of the Overland Park Arboretum BioBlitz, Volunteer Instructor at Powell Observatory (20 years) and member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation and several Audubon Societies.
He wrote a blog for about a year –
Grace Anne recently graduated form Blue Valley High School and participated in Blue Valley’s CAPS Environmental Awareness and Animal Science program. She will attend Johnson County Community College this fall majoring in Biology. She has taken field trips with Dan since she was 4 years old.

For more information:

Growing Fastplants

Since many AP Biology teachers are trying to grow Fastplants for the first time, I thought I’d do a few blog posts that follow a generation of Fastplants in my lab.  When I was in the high school classroom I always had a surplus of seed stock available because I was always growing the plants.  Now,  I just grow them occassionally because I think it is fun and also to provide starter seed stock for the new biology teachers that graduate from our UKanTeach program.  Back in July I was fortunate to travel up to the University of Wisconsin for another Fastplant workshop.  Paul and Hedi had Fastplants growing in a number of different types of containers

but I was particularly interested in the deli/discovery cup growing systems because they are very close the the technique I used to use in my classes back when film canisters were available.


The water reservoir (the deli container) can be used to also deliver soluble fertilizer so there is minimal care needed.  These containers are a bit small for weekends so I chose to use 16 oz. containers.

I returned from Wisconsin with some new ideas to try out as well as some seed.  Note that I brought the seed back stuck in tape.  We used the tape to pick the seed up and folded it back over itself to seal the seed in after making a couple of folded over tabs on the end.


You’ll find a description of this technique in several of the resources on the Fastplant website:

In the mean time one of my former students asked me about growing Fastplants so I decided to go out and get some more current cost estimates for supplies.  Assuming you have a light source but otherwise are starting from scratch here is what I found.

Soluble fertilizer from a local garden store:  20-20-20 with micronutrients


Artificial seed starter mix soil:



or a larger bag:


Deli Growing containers from Party America or Party City:



along with lids:


The portion cups from Party America cost about $3.50 per 100 1.25 oz. cups.  I already had quite a bit of yellow braided nylon mason twine from Home Depot so I don’t have a cost for that.  The neat thing about this system is that the individual cups can be moved about and that module based system is pretty easy to manage in a classroom.  I also purchased a can of Flat Black Spray Paint (one coat) that I used to paint the deli containers and lids to hopefully reduce algae growth in the water reservoirs.

I marked and cut 1 and 3/8 inch diameter holes in the lids to hold the cups.  I purchased a 1 and 3/8 inch spade bit to do this for about $5.  The holes are cut very carefully and slowly by running the drill backwards or counterclockwise.  In that way the bit just kind of scratches its way through the thin plastic of the lid.  Going in the forward or clockwise direction will likely lead to different levels of disaster—the bit is not designed to cut into such thin material in the forward direction.  If you drill that way you’ll just tear up the lid and likely not produce any holes that will work.

Marking the hole locations with a paper template.


Carefully drilling in reverse to cut the holes:


I added 250 ml of dilute fertilizer solution to each deli system.  I mixed the 1 measure (a full bottle cap from a 20 oz. soda bottle) fertilizer in 1 liter of water and then diluted that stock solution 1 part stock solution to 7 parts water.   I also drilled 1/8 inch holes in the bottom of the 1.25 oz. portion cups, added a 6 inch length of twine to serve as a wick, added moist soil mix to the cups to get ready to plant.


You can see the bluish fertilizer in the systems to the left and the wicks extending out of the cups on the right.  I moisten the soil so that I can work with it in a gallon plastic bag by squeezing water into it.  You can see the bag at the top of the tray.  Before I place a cup of soil into one of the systems I first make sure that the wicking system is working.  To do that I gently poured water from the pitcher in one of the cups until water was dripping from the wick.  This ensures that the soil is moist as well.  Once the water was dripping from the wick I transferred the cup to one of the growing systems.

I then planted 4-6 seeds in each cup (I will trim this back to only two plants in each cup in about a week).  The seeds were simply dropped onto the surface of the moist soil.  They are not “planted” beneath the surface.



At this point I added a little bit of horticultural vermiculite to the surface of each cup.  I got this tip from Paul W.   You could sprinkle a little bit of soil at this point but vermiculite helps the germinating plant to escape its seed coat.  I did not include the vermiculite in the costs above but I imagine it is around $8 for a small bag that will last for years of classroom plantings.



The systems then went under the lights.  Notice how close I have positioned the lights for now.

Day 0.


Day 1:  No apparent change:



Day 2:  We have germination



Day 3:  Most of the plants have germinated.  The cotyledons are expanding.




I’ll continue to report on this round of growing Fastplants.






Travel Award to attend NABT in Atlanta

Travel Award to attend NABT (National Association of Biology Teachers) Conference – Atlanta, GA (Nov. 20th – 23rd)

Motivated, energetic, enthusiastic science instructors at the high school and community college levels are invited to apply for travel awards to attend the 2013 Professional Development Conference of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), to be held in Atlanta, GA from November 20th through 23rd.

The awards are sponsored by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) and the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, which will cover all expenses (transportation, lodging, food and meeting registration).

The goal of this program is to identify talented, enthusiastic instructors who are excited about evolution, provide them with the opportunity to acquire new knowledge and pedagogical skills at the NABT conference, and then have them share this with their students (through classroom activities) and colleagues (through professional development activities).

Applicants should be high school or community college instructors with a passion for learning about and teaching evolution.  They should have a proven track record of successfully covering evolution-related topics in their courses in innovative ways.  In addition, they should be able to demonstrate a long-standing commitment to instructor professional development – both their own, and that of their colleagues.

If you’re interested in becoming a NESCent/BEACON Evolution Scholar and helping to bring cutting edge evolutionary science to your institution, please visit

If you have questions, please contact Dr. Jory Weintraub at


Some info about Raising Fastplants and Cabbage White Butterflies

A series of questions on the College Board’s forum prompted me to craft a response.  I’ll repeat it here:

Sorry for the late reply but I’ll try and answer some of these questions.

As to butterfly eggs arriving too soon:  When I was in my high school classroom, I don’t think I ever ordered my eggs so I wanted to see how the process might work.   Last year I ordered some eggs to see how the problematic procuring eggs might be.

The manual refers you to the fastplant web site where there is a ton of information about the butterflies and the plants.  As described in the manual and on the fastplant website, I like to have a “nursery” ready for the eggs arrival.  A “nursery” for me is an 8 oz. deli container filled with artificial soil (seed starting mix) and planted with more than 100 seeds from a brassica species.  I normally had so many fastplant seeds left over that I generally used those but last year I was buying seeds like others so instead, I went down to the local health/natural foods grocery and picked up some broccoli seeds in the bulk seed section (for sprouting).  I have found chinese cabbage and cabbage seeds in these bins.  These seeds are not quite as quick as fastplants but they make fine nursery stock for the butterflies.  Of course the eggs arrived before I was ready.

Now, I don’t talk a whole lot about this but you can put the eggs in the refrigerator for a couple of days to slow things down if you’d like.  What I don’t know is how long you can keep them there and what the mortality is if you keep them too long—sounds like an experiment.  I imagine that if you keep them from drying out you can do 3-5 days but like I said you should test this when you have lots of eggs after you have raised a generation of butterflies.  So I put them in the fridge and quickly planted my “nursery”.  I knew it would take a day or two or three for the eggs to hatch (couldn’t be sure) so I waited until I had some plants germinating.  The broccoli took longer than fastplants but you can see that some of the seed is germinated and plants are showing the cotyledons.  Notice that I have added the wax paper strips with the eggs at this point.  Each eggs strip represented one unit from the supplier.  I purchased two.

Here we are a few days later. Remember the broccoli a bit slower.  The eggs have hatched, though not as many as I had hoped.

You can see that the cotyledons are being eaten, you can see tiny specks of frass but what you probably can’t see is any larvae.

But they are there:

I find they are too small to handle at this stage so I generally wait until they are bigger and have consumed most of the foliage then I move them to grocery store food.

Those are brussel sprouts in the deli containers.  There are a number of small holes in the deli containers to allow water vapor to escape and the paper towels on the bottom are moistened very slightly.  They paper towels are changed daily or every other day.  There are about 50 larvae in these chambers getting ready to tranfer to the cabbage.  There is about 3 to 4 larvae on each half of a brussel sprout.  To avoid pesticides the outside leaves of the sprouts were removed.  Yes those are spiked handles for eating corn on the cob….

Here’s a close-up.  The larvae not on the brussel sprouts are getting ready to molt to the next instar.

The half cabbages are used to finish out the larval phase of the life cycle.  Large 4th instar larvae are place on the cabbage head.  Note there is a nail sticking vertically out of the small boards used as platforms and that the cabbage is slanted so that the cut face is tilted down so that the frass will not contaminate the cabbage.  These cabbages are placed in the paper box you see in the upper right.  I put on the lid to keep the smell in and the critters in.  They finish out their life cycle and then pupate within the box.  You’ll find the pupa/chrysalis all over the inside of the box.

For the energy dynamics lab–instead of the cabbages you would be transferring over to growing 14-day old fastplants.

Tom and others have talked about costs and space.  The lab is purposely does not prescribe any particular set up—mostly because it can be different in every class.  However,  this system was suggested because it can be relatively cheap–in fact, very cheap money wise.  Space wise is different.  It does requires some space but not all that much.  I had about 100 to 125 students most years and I fit all my classes plants into a light rack system that you can see in this image.

There are two rows of 4 trays and generally I could get one class worth of plants in each tray.  There are two 6 bulb fluorescent fixtures.   Note that the plants here are growing in bottle containers. (no cost for the containers, got the bottles from the recycle bins, they are 20 oz. coke bottles.)  Each tray can hold 24 bottle systems (20oz.)  or about 9 of the deli systems.

Some deli containers I’m putting together to plant later today or tomorrow.  I haven’t decided whether or not to paint them black to reduce algae growth.

I figure that in this system each student can take care of one plant or every two students share a container.  The deli containers can be purchased which I normally do by the case or I have been able to get them donated to my school by local groceries.  Here’s something I’m trying later.  They are a little top heavy which may be problematic  but mostly free and there will be no problem growing plants:

The little cups are “portion cups” 1.25 oz.  I got these from Party City 100/$3.50  You can order them via the web as well.

The light rack system is kind of the ultimate plant system (My wife and I both have one of these)  They are expensive to purchase (3-4 hundred) and the 6 bulb fluorescent fixtures are hard to find–plus there is the wiring etc.  However, school electricians in my experience are usually willing to set this up for you. (of course I live in the midwest).  I don’t often recommend these for teachers because of the expense though they do help to save space.  Instead I recommend the light box system.  From the Fastplant web site.]

These can be constructed for about $15-18 each.  I’ve priced the materials closer to $20 and have purchased them for $12. (The crates are highly variable in price, right now because I’m in a college town they are very cheap (<$5 each), the electrical system is about $7 to $10.  One of these will almost work for a class (not for class of 30) as they hold almost as much as one of my trays.  You can get 15 of the bottle systems or 7 of the deli systems in one of these.  The modularity makes them easier to move around the room and perhaps find small unused nooks.  Like wise they could be stacked in a bookcase of some sort.

Over the years, I’ve made my own light racks, purchased them and built light boxes out of everything from milk crates, to 5 gal. buckets to paper boxes.  In my experience the most expensive part of the set-up is the light system but still affordable.  There is the artificial soil mix, the braided nylon wicking material, and the fertilizer (and of course the seed) to add to the cost as well.  I usually by the soil by the large sack for about $35 which lasts for at least 3 to 4 years as does the fertilizer that runs about $7.  I’m setting a couple of my former students up with complete systems (1 light box, seeds, deli growing containers and supplies) this weekend.  I don’t anticipate spending more than $25 per setup.
BTW, I usually round up all the materials myself but I often required my students to obtain their own deli containers or their own bottles–part of doing science.

Hope that helps