January 2024: New Kits on the Block

Building Block IconMark your calendar!  January 28, 2024 is LEGO* Day.  I have been a big fan of LEGO in my personal life for a long time, and I was particularly excited when, several years ago, LEGO came out with their “Botanical Collection”.  I must admit that I went a bit crazy and overindulged in purchasing (and building) every plant-themed kit that became available. 

One day, as I putting together one of the LEGO botanical kits, I thought, “If you can have kits for building plants, why couldn’t you have kits for building diseased plants?”  Thus was born what I now refer to as “Building Block Plant Diseases”. 

The first step in creating the plant disease kits that I envisioned was to design models.  Luckily, an IT friend directed me to a computer program that allowed me to 3-D model plant diseases in building block form.  Using this program, I designed building block versions of several plant diseases including apple scab, Armillaria root disease, blossom end rot, cedar-apple rust, common smut of corn, grape downy mildew, powdery mildew, and silver leaf

After all of this computer-modeling, I next wanted to build a physical model of at least one of the diseases.  I focused on blossom end rot of tomato, as I was able to find and purchase pre-fabricated blocks that would allow me to build this model.  I also ended up designing and building a healthy tomato fruit to provide a comparison with the diseased fruit .  I have to say, it was pretty exciting to see one my “theoretical” building block plant diseases become a physical reality. 

My ultimate goal was to use my kits as educational tools, so I next worked on developing materials to supplement and enhance the building block models.  For my blossom end rot kit, I designed instruction manuals for both the diseased and healthy tomato fruits, as well as adult– and kid-friendly fact sheets to teach users about the disease/disorder.  To add educational value, I developed a blossom end rot word search game to include in the kit. 

Given that my building block kits are targeted toward a youth audience (not a demographic that I normally work with), I then needed to find partners who could get the my kits into the hands of kids.  I was fortunate in that two groups showed interest.  First was the “What’s Eating My Plants” or WEMP graduate student group in my department.  This group does extensive outreach to schools and other kid-friendly venues in the Madison area.  WEMP debuted my blossom end rot kits at a program the Monona Public Library in December 2023.  WEMP was also instrumental in translating all of my written materials, so that a Spanish version of the kit would be available.  The other folks that I have been partnering with extensively are UW-Madison Division of Extension 4H educators.  These educators will be incorporating the blossom end rot kit into a curriculum that they are developing to teach kids about the history and uses of tomatoes, as well as about tomato-related careers.  Eventually, blossom end rot building block kits will be availble in every county in Wisconsin. 

If the idea of “Building Block Plant Diseases” piques your interest, and you are interested in seeing my blossom end rot building block models, I will have the models on display at my booth at the PBS Wisconsin Garden and Landscaping Expo at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, February 9-11, 2024.  Feel free to stop by booth #533/#604 to take a look. 

So, what’s next?  Well, the big challenge for bringing other plant disease building block kits to fruition is that prefabricated blocks are not available for the other models that I have designed.  A possible work around for this problem would be to 3-D print the blocks that I need.  I currently have a 3-D printer in my basement, and with help from the IT friend that I previously mentioned, I hope to engage in a frenzy of block printing activity this winter and have physical versions of at least some of the other plant diseases that I have modeled by the end of the year. 

“Building Block Plant Diseases” has been a really fun and exciting project to work on.  If you would like to keep up to date on developments on this project, be sure to follow the PDDC on Twitter (aka X)  or Facebook (both @UWPDDC), or subscribe to the PDDC listserv, UWPDDCLearn (just email me to join).  As always, you can also contact me by phone at (608) 262-2863 or email at pddc@wisc.edu

With that, go forth and build!!


*DISCLAIMER:  References to LEGO products in this article is not an endorsement of these products by the University of Wisconsin or a criticism of other similar products.  Mention of LEGO is solely for the purpose of illustrating the process that led to the development of “Building Block Plant Diseases”.