- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

My mother always had the green thumb in the family. She knew little of the biological specifics behind her flowering gardens, but she understood that having an appreciation of living things and caring for them would help them thrive.

A Web site for children combines this appreciation with scientific explanations to unravel the mysteries of the plant world with help from a great detective, plenty of educational information and activities to be enjoyed far away from the computer.

The Great Plant Escape

Site address: www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/gpe/index.html


A team of educators from University of Illinois Extension horticulturists Greg Stack and Ron Wolford, child development educator Marsha Hawley and urban programming specialist Jane Scherer developed the site in 1997. The Extension program, located in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., provides research-based information and programs for families, farms, businesses and communities in Illinois.

Creator quotable:

"The Great Plant Escape was developed to help children learn about the basics of plant sciences in a fun way. We wanted to develop a resource that focused on science so youngsters could learn about plants and how food grows," Miss Scherer says.

"They learn what soil is, how to identify plant parts, what is a seed and how plants reproduce. We focused on enhancing the site by providing a variety of hands-on activities, like growing lettuce in a bag indoors, so they could actually watch plants grow."

Word from the Webwise:

The Great Plant Escape is a rudimentary botany course geared toward fourth- and fifth-graders. Visitors will meet Detective LePlant and his proteges, Bud the carrot and Sprout the hot green-bean pod, who learn about plants by solving five cases.

The cases "In Search of Green Life," "Soiled Again," "Is it Dust, Dirt, Dandruff or a Seed?" "Plantenstein Is the Suspect" and "Mysterious Parts That Surprise" offer some pretty plain illustrations with quizzes, experiments and problem-solving features. For example, clicking on "Soiled Again," I found an introductory page outlining the mission (to learn what soil is, why it is important and in what kinds of soil plants grow), areas to be explored and reinforcing activities.

Students will learn about the major components of soil, how microbes work with chemicals and living plant material to support life forms, and the process of composting. The segment introduces words such as nutrients, potassium and organic matter. As children work their way through the pages of the case, they get pop-up definitions, plenty of support graphics and detailed instructions on developing a soil map.

A substantial "Teachers' Guide" mimics the cases and presents a wealth of information for the educator to use in instructing students on the incredible wonders of plants.

Ease of use:

The 5-year-old site shows its age and will never compete with some of the flashier child-friendly cyber-stops, but the pages do provide enough well-written information to make it a perfect companion to the classroom or home-school environment.

Visitors need only a modem connection and version 3.0 or higher browser to enter the plant kingdom.

The creators say more information on fertilization and instructions on how to grow lettuce indoors will be added, giving a reason for a return stop.

Don't miss:

Inquisitive members of the family will seek out the "Ask LePlant" message board posted under the "Teachers' Guide" to find hundreds of answers to questions ranging from "What is the effect of microwaves on the germination of seeds?" to "What is the equation for photosynthesis?" to "How does the scientific method work?"

Family activity:

One would imagine growing and dissecting plants would be a primary off-line experiment, but for me, creating a "Plantenstein" was the winner. Visitors will need grass seed, jade plant leaves, onion sets, spider-plant plantlets, ivy and soil as they combine various propagation methods to produce a "face" in a plastic tray or aluminum pie plate.

Cyber-sitter synopsis:

Knowledge-hungry children should be able to plow through the entire site in a few hours, rapidly learning about many plant concepts. Those looking for more educational fun will find the Urban Programs Resource Network: Just for Kids (www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/kids/index.html) area has six other character-based minisites, including "Trees Are Terrific: Travels With Pierre," "My First Garden," "The Adventures of Herman: The Autobiography of Squirmin' Herman the Worm" and "Out on the Limb," which teaches children about conflict resolution.

Overall grade: B-

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]).

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