Friday, July 29, 2016

What Is The Corpse Flower Sensation? And Why Is Viral Science A Learning Opportunity?

Source: National Geographic

It's rare that a single flower becomes a viral, stakeout sensation. We admit that we've been fixated. While YouTube eyes are currently obsessed with a grotesque and freakish bloom, educators may be missing an opportunity.

Yesterday the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) announced that after a decade of cultivation, the Amorphophallus titanum finally began to bloom. Commonly known as the "corpse flower," this plant from Sumatra in Indonesia exudes the smell of rotting meat as it opens. The putrid odor and the otherworldly shape are keys to its appeal, as its startling height. The flower has notched the Guinness World Record for the tallest bloom in cultivation at over 10 feet (and even larger in its natural habitat).



The New York Botanical Garden first hosted a successful bloom of the corpse flower in 1937. A second emerged in in 1939, but generations have past to witness the third revelation of this dreamy, rancid blossom. Visitors have been lining up, and online watchers have been glued to the YouTube livestream, mostly because the scare appearance lasts for only 24 - 36 hours.

Why is this floral oddity relevant for teachers and students? On a basic level, this quirky natural artifact offers countless avenues for science learners to explore biology, botany, morphology, behavior, pollination, inflorescence, germination, dormancy, regionality, and cultivation. For example, the bloom is not actually one large flower. Instead it comprises a leaf-like ring of outbursts surrounding a central column.



On a higher level, the fascination with this shy and fetid flower speaks to every teacher's desire (and angst): how can we make make learning relevant? How can we pinpoint the moving target of our contemporary kids' attention spans? If they are attracted by a weird plant, what can we learn from this momentary buzz to inform our curricula?

Is it too much to ask that a daily lesson is unexpected? Is it pandering to give students something to anticipate, to look forward to? The allure of the NYBG "Corpse Flower Cam" lies in the waiting. It rests in the charisma of the macabre. Why does a flower smell so bad? What is the evolutionary attraction for carrion creatures that will come and spread the pollen?

Source: NYBG; Chicago Botanic Garden

Source: University Of Wisconsin-Madison
In other words, all classes should unfold like a mystery. Children ought to be rapt in the one-in-a-million stories: the collapse of the Spanish armada, the elegance of Euler's identity, the chance of penicillin's discovery, or the lightning of a boy's forehead.

For locals, the occasion to visit a monstrous plant that reeks of spoiled flesh is priceless. Would that all of our classes were as exhilarating. For the rest of us, this is a neat moment that we should remember in September, to excite STEM learners and to wake up the drowsy kids who don't think our "Do Now" exercise lives up to their Snapchat feed.

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