The Case of the Missing Plant


“Our experiment didn’t work” was the first reaction of Max’s group of 1st and 2nd grade students. Every group in the class had been given four bean seeds to plant in four different ways:

  • One planted and placed in a dark cupboard
  • One in a wet paper towel with no soil
  • One in dry dirt with no water
  • “Control” group with light, soil, and water

Everyone else’s control group grew a normal, healthy plant, but Max’s group had no plant sprouting at all. How could the seed with perfect conditions have not grown?

Field Work

The students were completing an investigation of “what do things need to grow?” as part of a larger PBL project in Necedah, Wisconsin. Teachers Melissa Riggs and Tracy Saylor wanted their young learners to understand the science of food production and looked to their community as starting point.

It was important to tie science and social studies standards to relevant background knowledge that students already had.

Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the United States growing 62% of the crop in 2017. So they took their students to a local cranberry marsh to launch a project with the Driving Question: How does a plant go from seed to table?

The field work was authentic to students because Tracy had worked there prior to becoming a teacher and ⅓ of the students had parents or other family members that worked in the cranberry industry. Students observed the entire process from growing to harvesting to packaging and shipping. Students eat Craisins all of the time as snacks, and made proud connections that the source was their community. It demystified that food does not come from the store. The students learned the importance of their local economy in the larger food supply for the country.

The day before the field work the students explored the social studies standard of how harvesting crops looked over one hundred years ago compared to today. They made a T-chart to compare the differences. Melissa and Tracy introduced important vocabulary for the project so students would be prepared to discuss what they would see at the cranberry marsh.

Seed Project

After the field work, the students started the seed experiment in groups. Every Monday for the next few weeks they would check for growth, measure, and document in tables. They were working science standards of experimenting and data collection.

One of the biggest surprises to students was what happened in the dark cupboard. Some students guessed that nothing would grow, but in fact plants grew faster and taller than the control group. But the plants were white and didn’t have leaves or look very healthy. Some students did notice that there was a crack in the cupboard that allowed a small amount of light and the plants were leaning towards it.

For the literacy part of the project students had to choose one fruit or vegetable to research and explain how it grows, how it is harvested, and how it is used. Each student then presented a poster of their chosen plant to the class. They were assessed on non-fiction writing, specifically how to diagram and layout information. It was the students’ first time presenting so the teachers did not want them to be too nervous with an outside audience.

Melissa and Tracy, along with the librarian, found websites and books and then taught students how to pull relevant information from the texts. Most students chose a plant they were familiar with from their garden or the farmer’s market. Students were familiar with “harvesting” from their home gardens but were amazed at the machinery of mass harvesting on commercial farms that they watched on Youtube.

Teacher Reflection

Upon reflecting on the project, Melissa and Tracy were impressed with the engagement level of students throughout the project. Even though it was their first time researching, students were engrossed in inquiry throughout. They continuously wanted to know more about their chosen plant and were proud to share their learning with teachers and classmates. All of the students could explain the details about their research and grew in confidence!

Tracy commented that Max, a low level reader, “needed lots of support, but let me tell you he could tell you about a plum.” Students of all reading abilities were successful in research and in communicating their learning verbally.

PBL gives all students access to content regardless of their reading level.

Melissa and Tracy reflected on their planning as teachers. They admitted that at the beginning they did not have the entire project planned out. They knew the main benchmarks and standards, but allowed room for the project to pivot based on student voice and choice as collected by observation and conservations throughout. They were a little nervous at first, but were happy to have taken the leap to student-centered learning and are already planning future projects. Of course, they can wait to connect students to the community again.

Mystery Solved!

But what about the mystery of the missing plant? Well, students decided to take their plants out of their containers to examine the roots. They were fascinated to see the work that was happening underground. Some students noted that the white color of the plants grown in the dark matched the color of the roots.

When Max’s group emptied out the control group cup they found no seed. They had accidentally planted two seeds in the dark cup in the cupboard. Mystery solved in the name of science!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

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