Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

James H. Wandersee


This research study investigated how undergraduate college biology students' level of understanding of the role of the seed plant root system relates to their level of understanding of photosynthesis. This research was conducted with 65 undergraduate non-majors biology who had completed 1 year of biology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. A root probe instrument was developed from some scientifically acceptable propositional statements about the root system, the process of photosynthesis, as well as the holistic nature of the tree. These were derived from research reviews of the science education and the arboriculture literature. This was administered to 65 students selected randomly from class lists of the two institutions. Most of the root probe's items were based on the Live Oak tree. An in-depth, clinical interview-based analysis was conducted with 12 of those tested students. A team of root experts participated by designing, validating and answering the same questions that the students were asked. A "systems" lens as defined by a team of college instructors, root experts (Shigo, 1991), and this researcher was used to interpret the results. A correlational coefficient determining students' level of understanding of the root system and their level of understanding of the process of photosynthesis was established by means of Pearson's r correlation (r = 0.328) using the SAS statistical analysis (SAS, 1987). From this a coefficient of determination (r2 = 0.104) was determined. Students' level of understanding of the Live Oak root system (mean score 5.94) was not statistically different from their level of understanding of the process of photosynthesis (mean score 5.54) as assessed by the root probe, t (129) = 0.137, p > 0.05 one tailed-test. This suggests that, to some degree, level of the root system limits level of understanding of photosynthesis and vice versa. Analysis of quantitative and qualitative data revealed that students who applied principles of systems thinking performed better than those who did not. Students' understanding of the root system of the Live Oak tree was hindered by understanding of, plant food, the nonwoody roots, and the tree as a system.