The Mushroom Smith inspires west Auckland students with fungi research

Posted on 31 August 2023

We recently awarded the Mushroom Smith (aka Chris Smith) with $10,000 in WeSTEM funding to lead a research inquiry on how fungi can provide for the community. The experienced mycologist is working alongside west Auckland rangatahi to identify different fungi growing in the local environment and to learn about the important role that fungi play in our ecosystems.

Last term, Chris took students from Saint Dominic's College on a short hīkoi around the school grounds to identify different types of mushrooms and ignite their interest in all things fungi. During their school holidays, students went foraging for mushrooms and used the iNaturalist citizen science database to view findings from overseas.

The project has now kicked off in full swing this term with students from Waitākere College, Kelston Intermediate School and Saint Dominic's all taking part in a new intra-school mushroom growing competition.

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These grow kits will allow students to learn and experience the process of fungi propagation, with the goal being to see which school can grow the largest mushrooms by weight over the next term, taking into account their classroom's humidity, temperature, and lighting.

WeSTEM project manager Dr Sneh Patel attended a recent grow kit preparation day. Students shared that they are enjoying the project and are excited to be working with a mycologist like Chris. They especially enjoy the practical nature of the project, which allows them to get out in nature and spend time growing and propagating mushrooms.

The students' excitement about the mushroom project is also evident in the way they have peppered Chris with questions about the different types of mushrooms found at supermarkets and how to tell if a wild mushroom is edible. (Chris advised that it is best to leave wild mushrooms alone, as it can be very difficult to tell if they are poisonous.)

Sneh reports, “It was clear that the students I spoke with not only appreciated Chris’ knowledge and expertise but were also inspired by his passion for the subject.”

For the next part of the project, Chris has tasked the students with using social media to identify mycologists (or mycophiles) who are posting about fungi found in the Pacific Islands. He hopes to invite these local experts to a Zoom kōrero, so they can share their knowledge of the unique fungi in their areas and help students expand their knowledge beyond Aotearoa New Zealand.

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The practical work will also continue, with Chris guiding the students through an experiment to find out which media mushrooms will and won't grow in. They will also create small grow kits to take home. 

The culmination of this project will be a homegrown mushroom 'weigh-in' at the end of term. Chris hopes this will be an exciting way to celebrate everything the students have learned and  share their achievements with whānau and the wider community.

Chris Smith undertook a similar project with Summerland School in 2022. Read about this research in the latest copy of our WeSTEM showcase

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