Using STEM Education to Learn about “Fungi: The Great Go Between”

October 4, 2018

Dear Editor:

A STEM education differs from a traditional science classroom in many ways.  Fungi has always been a topic with Biology. However, within traditional science education students would have been required to identify and categorize fungi and molds.  Now, within a STEM classroom students focus on form and function of fungi within an ecosystem and how important their function is towards a healthy ecosystem.

Fungus and mold deserve to be appreciated and blessed, more than it should be cursed and bleached.  Black mold and mildew are dangerous and destructive, but they are only a small section of fungi. There is an entire kingdom of fungi, which all molds and mildews belong to, that many ecosystems depend upon, including many of our food sources.

To begin, fungi are more animal-like than plant-like.  Fungi are commonly mistaken as some type of plant because they seem to spontaneously grow out of nowhere.  Fungi cannot be plants because they grow in the dark or in places where the sun does not shine.  In fact, direct sunlight often will kill fungi.

The plant kingdom’s species are categized as “autotrophic”, which means they automatically get the energy they need from the environment.  They grow in the presence of sunlight.  Whereas, both the fungi and animal kingdoms are categorized as “heterotrophic” (hetero means different), hence they get their energy from a different source.  Animals get their energy from different animals and plants, so do fungi. In fact, many times it is the same plants and animals!

Luckily, we, animals get first crack at the freshly harvested food, the dead plants and animals.  However, if the animal does not consume all the nutrients and energy within the food quickly, one of the millions of fungi spores will find it and begin to indulge in the feast as well.  It is this act, of fungi’s spontaneous arrival and complete annihilation of the food source that we humans find so destructive, but nature finds it to be so mandatory.

To explain, we all know that every autumn the trees lose their leaves.
Nature, being the ultimate recycler, will use the exact same atoms, (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen and other atoms) that are within this year’s fallen leaves to build next year’s leaves.  Weather and natural erosion cannot break the leaves’ structures down into useable nutrients within the few months between growing seasons without the help of fungi.
Fungi not only consume our food, but they are constantly breaking down all dead and decaying matter.  In fact, that is fungi’s true energy source, dead and decaying organic matter, which is really its strongest attribute.  An ecosystem without fungi would be full of dead and decaying matter.  As unpleasant as some fungi may be, imagine a world full of rotten food and feces.

Enough talk of the unpleasant, disgusting, world of unmentionables that fungi relentlessly clean-up for us.  Remember, they do this cleaning spontaneously and thoroughly.  In addition, fungi also have a pleasant side.
Fungi are food.  They can be eaten directly, not a personal favorite, but others sure do enjoy them.   More commonly, fungi are used to modify or enhance foods.  Many cheeses, yogurts, breads, beans, and sauces just could not have that unique flavor without the help of fungi.  Fungi, in its many forms, will preserve foods, increase the flavors of foods, and sometimes change them all together.

There is so much more to fungi than black mold and mildew. They change the rotting dead into nutrients and they can take a plain, fresh food and make it into a unique tastily treat.

STEM education provides an avenue for students to learn the complexities of nature in an authentic way.  Fungi provide a platform for students, and now hopefully you, to understand the inter-dependents and importance of all species in an ecosystem.  Fungi’s form and function is to be the great go between.

Andrew J Frisch
Science and Mathematics teacher
Farwell High School

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