As I mentioned in the last post, many of those responding to herbarium outreach programs are senior citizens with time and expertise to share. As a member of this population I obviously consider their contributions significant. But let’s face it, we are short-term participants in the herbarium renaissance. To build a firm foundation for the herbaria of the future, young people’s interest must be captured and nurtured. In my post on outreach, I mentioned a number of clever ways herbaria, botanic gardens, and natural history museums are luring youngsters into the world of plant preservation and conservation. In this post, I want to look at programs to integrate natural history into the K-12 curriculum.
For obvious reasons, animals are often the focus of natural history education. I am hardly going to dis an entire kingdom, especially because many botanists tell of being fascinated by bugs, snakes, or small rodents when they were young. Hunting for these eventually led them to see the plants that many animals call home. At this point, plant blindness has almost become a cliché in biology, though I think it is still real, at least among adults. Children are physically closer to the ground and therefore to the world of plants, and this is one reason that early education about plants makes sense (Sanders et al., 2014).
I also think that simple is better. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe became fascinated by flowers when she was seven years old, when a teacher distributed tulips to examine. It opened a new world for O’Keeffe and led to her amazing floral works. When I was a freshman in high school, where I had my first exposure to real science education, our teacher sent us home for spring break with the assignment to simply notice the changes of spring. This was memorable for me in part because it wasn’t “real” homework: no reading or writing required. But what really struck me was how much there was to see: tulips opening with so much inside each bloom that I had never noticed before, buds on trees, weeds springing up in sidewalk cracks. I didn’t become an artist because of this experience, but I did realize that close observation was fun; this might have been the start of my becoming a biologist.
To bring herbaria into this, I think pressing plants is a great way to observe them. The first step is selecting a specimen. This means looking for a good candidate: are there flowers or berries, is this a representative sample? Just looking might lead to discovery of more traits like tendrils, or hairs on the leaves, or small features of the flower. Then wrestling the specimen into place on a sheet of newspaper so it presses well can lead to other discoveries, such as the thickness of the fruit or how easy or difficult the stem is to bend. In other words, collecting leads to knowing a plant, having a tactile relationship with it as well as a visual one. There might even be scent involved. Yes, the specimen does need to be identified and labeled, but this should be done with gentle encouragement rather than as a hurdle to be overcome or a quiz to be passed.
I am not arguing that children’s exposure to nature should be just about observation and nothing more, but I think direct experience should definitely be at the core of any exercise. The University of Reading recently staged a day-long symposium called “The Big Botany Challenge.” There were 80 participants from 50 different schools, botanic gardens, research institutions, conservation organizations, etc. By the end of the day, the room was abuzz with ideas that had been shared among the presenters and other participants. One speaker, Nigel Chaffey, advocated for “botany by stealth.” Since many students aren’t interested in plants, he asks: “Why not smuggle bits of plant information into lessons on geography, history, art and computing?” Coincidently, I recently heard Rudy Mancke, the naturalist in residence at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, make a similar suggestion, but for a different reason. He argued that since humans are part of nature, every subject is related to it: the natural world is the thread the runs through all disciplines, and they should be taught with this in mind.
Because interest in natural history education is rising, there is a wealth of information on the web to guide teachers. It is ideal if projects deal with plants from nearby areas. It’s difficult for students to relate to a tropical plant if they are living in Maine, in the sense that their learning won’t be reinforced by coming upon such plants in the outdoors. There are several sites that offer diverse activities, such as iDigBio in the United States and the Big Botany Challenge in Britain. Canada has the Children and Nature Network and Australia has activities through its Atlas of Living Australia. While the plants may be different in far-off lands, the activities may provide novel ideas that could be adapted to any ecosystem.
I want to end this post with a niggling thought from the very back of my mind. A number of historians of natural history, including Lynn Barber (1980), argue that the 19th-century rage for natural history started to dim when the subject began to be taught in schools. Then it became work. While I don’t think this means that natural history should not be a part of a student’s education, it should cause teachers to think twice before making forays into nature too focused on standards and not on joy.
Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Davies, P., Sanders, D. L., & Amos, R. (2014). Learning in cultivated gardens and other outdoor landscapes. In C. J. Boulter, M. J. Reiss, & D. L. Sanders (Eds.), Darwin-Inspired Learning (pp. 47–58).