Jon Hale, Head of Biology at Beaulieu Convent School in Jersey
I teach in a relatively small school in Jersey. After the first few cohorts through the reformed A Levels, it became clear that our students were struggling with certain aspects of the Biology A course. Judging by the grade boundaries, it would seem that they weren’t alone in struggling to develop robust knowledge of genetics, gene technologies, evolution and ecosystems. What if there was a way to build a narrative through the course that pulled on these themes?
On a sunny Sunday in the spring of 2018, I was inspired by what I saw around me. Taking the time to notice nature, I became aware of the diversity in phenotypes of daffodils. When you picture a daffodil, you will probably think of a yellow trumpeted flower, but there are so many different types. At least 30,000 have been named! Some are white, some peach, oranges, some big, some small. It is simply amazing.
Undoubtedly, the history of daffodils in Jersey has helped provide this context, as the island has been a major exporter of daffodils for many years. When fields needed to be repurposed for food crops, lots of bulbs found their way to field margins and earth banks.
It was then, when we started our daffodil project at our school. For the past five years we have been undertaking a sustained research project with our A Level Biology students, while teaching the specification. The aim of the project is to sequence daffodil chloroplasts.
The first part of our project was getting students to notice the daffodils’ diversity. Students and their families were encouraged to take photos and upload their observations to iNaturalist. They tried to find the most unusual types they could. Identifying daffodils was originally only based on their ever-increasing knowledge of what makes a daffodil, a daffodil.
We applied for a Royal Society Partnership Grant with Dr Konyves from the Royal Horticultural Society which allowed us to purchase loads of cool kit, from micropipettes to an Oxford Nanopore minION DNA sequencer.
Unfortunately, the pandemic hit, disrupting our lives. Although exams were cancelled, it did give us an opportunity to see what we could teach through the project and attempt to measure the impact on students.
As a species, daffodils are interesting. When you plant a bulb, that bulb already has a flower inside it, ready for the conditions to start its growth. But these bulbs are the result of asexual reproduction (Spec A ref: 2.1.6 e) providing a simple tether to vegetative propagation and cloning (Spec A ref: 6.2.1 a).
Daffodils also produce galantamine, with particular cultivars being grown in the UK for export to North America for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps you have noticed how daffodils are avoided by cattle or sheep in fields, or how they affect other cut flowers in a vase?
The leaves show variation (Spec A ref: 4.2.2 f) with many appearing a bluey-green which introduces a curiosity to investigate what pigments may be present through chromatography (Spec A ref: 1.2.2g, 2.1.2s, 5.2.1c).
It is the leaves that we are focused on, using the chloroplast (Spec A ref: 5.2.1 b) genomes for comparative analysis. If you ever isolate chloroplasts to investigate the light dependent reactions of photosynthesis (Spec A ref: 5.2.1 c) using DCPIP, why not have a look at them under the light microscope too? It’s a great opportunity for your students to appreciate the diversity in shape and size. They can even try and measure a mean length using the skills of calibrating the microscope (Spec A ref: PAG 1,1.2.2d, 2.1.1b, c, d, e).
The isolated chloroplasts will then be used for DNA extraction (Spec A ref: 2.1.3 d) and sequencing and this is where the biology becomes special. This step seems to have a profound effect on the aspiration of our students. Some of our students who have taken part in the project have gone on to study biochemistry and biotechnology, while previously they wanted to study history or art.
Once the DNA sequencing (PAG 10) is complete, the data analysis is a bit crude, but it is good enough for the aims. There are now three different complete chloroplast genomes that we can align our sequences against, in a drag and drop program. The students initially see black bars lining up against these references which allows them to see where their data is more trustworthy and where there is less confidence before creating their own draft chloroplast genomes for each daffodil. Zooming in on these bars shows the individual bases.
These genomes can then be used to produce a phylogenetic tree (Spec A ref: 4.2.2 g) and have meaningful discussions about what this visualisation is showing.
Investigating the impact of the project led to our school being a runner-up in the Rolls-Royce Schools Prize for Science and Technology in December 2022.The impact and legacy of the project is phenomenal. The project has increased visibility of science within the school and local community. This has also increased the numbers of students post-16 across all the sciences. We are seeing more students choosing to study biology because they are fascinated by the subject rather than as a gateway to a healthcare career.
As a biology teacher I am particularly proud of those little snapshots provided by exam results. It was fantastic to see our students outperform the national average for H420/02 (Paper 2) in June 2022, for the first time! With the project still rolling on, the data produced is dripping into GCSE students, adding to resources to teaching adaptations and classification.
It has been great to share the project beyond our school, and we now have a Daffodil DNA Project in schools and FE Colleges across the UK. Some are using the project with National 5 (GCSE equivalent) students with the aspiration of continuing for further studies, while others are embedding it within vocational qualifications. It is a great mechanism to take away some of the “black box” science of our specifications.
Through applying for a Royal Society Partnership Grant, your school would be awarded up to £3000 to purchase equipment and consumables. If you would like to apply, I would happily supply you with all the necessary details. You can contact me via email firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @DaffDNA.
If you have any questions, you can email us at email@example.com, call on 01223 553998 or tweet @OCR_Science. You can also sign up to subject updates and receive information about resources and support.
Jon Hale is Head of Biology at Beaulieu Convent School in Jersey. He has been teaching for 15 years and has recently enrolled on a part-time PhD at the University of Dundee. He also represents the interests of schoolteachers on the committee of the British Ecological Society’s Teaching and Learning Special Interest Group.