Educational activity at the University of Padua Botanic Garden: an educational experiment for partially-sighted schoolboys

R.Ondertoller*, M.Zuanelli*, A.Todaro**, N.Tornadore ** and P.Giulini**

* Italian Blind Union, Via Barbarigo 15-35100, Padua, Italy. ** Botanic Garden of Padua University, Via Orto Botanico 15, I-35123 Padua, Italy


Towards the end of the 1980s, the management of the University of Padua Botanic Garden had begun to notice an appreciable increase in requests from pre-university schools for guided visits. This development was due to the awakening of interest in environmental themes brought about by the mass media. These themes had made an impression on public opinion and had induced teachers to set up educational projects aimed at developing an awareness and a defence of the environment. The Italian educational system had not equipped teachers to set up projects in these educational and cultural areas. Yet many teachers, prompted by public opinion, have favoured teaching children the importance of environmental topics and have taken some initial steps (relying on their own knowledge with the help of an occasional expert) with results of uncertain cultural, teaching and educational efficacy (Bonfanti et al. , 1993).

To make up for this lack of preparation, the management of the Botanic Garden felt it their duty to organize various cultural projects.

The first steps

The activities described below were begun in the 1989-90 academic year. They aimed to update schoolteachers' knowledge of the environment and biology and to experiment with new teaching methods for students in the teaching of botany (Rebecchi, 1990).

At first, together with the interested teachers, the programmes proposed by the Ministry of Education were examined, i.e. the study of the natural sciences in the various types of school (nursery school, 3 to 6 years; elementary, 6 to 10 years; middle school, 11 to 13 years). This work, carried out by the schoolteachers and with university professors, resulted in several types of teaching activities being proposed for use in schools (Curti, 1993).

For this purpose, educational materials and equipment belonging to the Botanic Garden, including a laboratory fitted out with 30 microscopes were made available to students. The teachers were offered follow-up courses aimed at renewing the knowledge that they had acquired during their university years. There were also given the opportunity of trying new methods of teaching botany with their classes at the Botanic Garden.

Activities were included in the teachers' annual teaching schedule and involved t similar connections in new contexts. Far, although certain activities could onured way, a method of study based on a sequence of research-observation-discovery (Curti, 1993). Thus the Botanic Garden was transformed into a decentralized classroom.

The Botanic Garden and the non-seeing student

A challenge arose to make the Botanic Garden 'visible' to studle school annex. This no longer exists, as partially sighted students now attend 'normal' schooll use of the material available at the Botanic Garden.

The work has always been carried out in collabotation with the families of the partially sighted, with their teachers and with the voluntary personnel working at the Italian Blind Union (Trisciuzzi, 1992).

It was not long before it was realized that the activities programmed for 'seeing' stude progrsted. e first step was for the Botanic Garden to make available the requested plants (Curti & Todaro, 1993).

The educational itinerary

The planning of the display was considered next. The plants were potted in medium-sized flowerpots, each with an informative label (common name of plant, scientific name, family and area of origin) written so as to be legible both by the seeing and by the non-seeing students. The pots were arranged on wooden benches two meters long, supported by hollow metallic bars about 70 cm high. Iron rods fastened to the ground were placed inside the hollow bars. The benches were lined along the edge of a flower bed in an easily-reached position in the Botanic Garden. The bed is located outside the part closed in by the circular wall, in an area called the Arboretum. Potting the plants and distributing them on benches allowed the partially sighted students to move along the educational itinerary in a relatively easy and independent way. At their suggestion the creation of customary lanes or handrails obliging them to move along a set route was avoided – a very important aspect from a psychological point of view.

The size of all the plants in the pots was more or less similar (average height ca. 1 meter). This was in order that partially sighted students could visualise the morphology and the dimension of the plant and its parts above ground with the two senses at their disposition – touch and smell. For this reason we were asked to have plants of reduced ehend the real form and structure of the foliage and the dimensions in heigyed by all school classes. This is important because at the present-time pl mission of the Botanic Garden is able to respond in a rigorous, organic aof Education (Todaro et al. , 1994).

The Garden visit

During a visit to the Botanic Garden, partially sighted students are requested to read the label and transcribe it, completely or in part, onto a special card. Then they are to determine certain morphological characteristics of each plant by themselves (simple leaf, composite leaf; with or without leafstalk; form of the lamina and edges; possible scent) and with other students (measurement of the leafstalk, the lamina, calculation of the surface of the lamina, etc.). The results of all these various activities are to be recorded on the card.

A map of the Garden is then given to the students, which indicates the place where they can see an adult example of the same species growing in the ground. They will find a label similar to the one read earlier and will be able to gain further knowledge (morphology of the bark, percussion of the trunk with the hand, circular dimension of the trunk, insertion of the trunk in the ground, possible scent). Finally, they are given a 10cm cube of wood so that they can determine its texture, weight, smell etc.

The card written up during the visit is collected by the teacher of the class and commented on at school in the following days. Before the group leaves the Garden the person acting as their guide has each student fill in and hand in a check-card indicating the activities performed during the visit. On leaving, the students are also given informative cards with botanical information about the plants they have observed (morphology of the tree, area of origin, use by man, history, myths, local legends, etc.).

Final analysis

Some days later a meeting is held with the teacher to learn how the students have reacted during the visit. This moment is particularly important because it reveals how the student worked and allows us to judge the educational value of the visit, to reflect on both the teacher's work and ours and to decide whether the objectives have been reached. Here are a few answers the students gave to the questions on the check-card:

'What is a Botanic Garden?'

'A museum of plants'
(Marco, seeing student, age eight)

'A book where each tree is a page'
(Emanuele, partially sighted, age nine)

'A green oasis in the middle of so much smog'
(Paola, seeing, age ten)

'A place where many plants live without being mistreated'
(Luca, partially sighted, age nine).

'What would you have liked to do?'

To have more time to touch the barks'
(Luca, partially sighted, age nine)

'Try to improve the nauseating smell of the ginkgo seeds'
(Giovanni, seeing, age ten)

'For my dad to have been with me'
(Maria, partially sighted, age ten).

In the following years teachers have asked if it were possible to have benches on which to display, during particular periods of the academic year, certain plants which are especially useful in their teaching work. Thus medicinal plants, plants for the production of essences, varieties of species belonging to the same genus, etc. were made available to them. During the continuing discussions concerning the 'Partially Sighted Project' it was more and more evidore, 1995). For example written in black is in very large print that can be read by persons having only 1/20 vision.

Teaching aids

A number of illustrative pamphlets have been printed over the years for the various types of schools and have been made available to both seeing and partially sighted students:

The guide to the Garden has been taped on an audiocassette. Various entertaining and amusing materials have also been prepared and found to be successful. The traditional Italian school involves the teacher being at the front of the class and the students listening; the idea of games as a teaching instrument is ignored by most teachers. However, if "playing" is considered in the right light, it can allow us to learn whether the content of a topic has been presented in an efficient manner, whether the students have assimilated the content in an appropriate way and if the teacher, too, has dealt with the subject in a pedagogically correct and educationally valid way. Moreover, with this type of stimulus, the child can regain the pleasure of active learning (Trisciuzzi, 1992; Bonfanti et al., 1993). In an atypical classroom such as the Botanic Garden, "playing" can simultaneously involve both the teacher and the student without the need to renounce the disciplinary rigour and order to be observed in such a place.

Again aiming at learning activities, treasure hunts have been organized, where the treasure is the tree most observed during the course of the year. The tree is discovered only after a series of questions that involve remembering the knowledge dealt with in the course of the academic year.

Various games have been prepared: wooden puzzles using 48 varieties of wood and bark corresponding to the principal essences in the Garden; domino with leaves, 'Know the Trees of Your Botanic Garden' and finally 'Save the Trees in the Botanic Garden', a game of collaboration set up on ogical theme which allows the player.) as well as themes of a more general character such as botany, pollution, ecology, etc.


The visit of the seeing and partially sighted students to the Botanic Garden must be related to the students' school work, in the context of the whole year's teaching programme.

The experiemental character of the work provides students with first-hand experiences on which they can reflect and make use of in subsequent school work (Orefice, 1993). It requires the active participation of the students and the involvement of the teacher prior to the students visiting the Garden.

The study of the tree must be included in the wider context of the study of other disciplines. Nevertheless, the work at the garden is important and needs to be continued so as not to disappoint the requensts and enthusiastic reactions on the part of the partially sighted students, their families and their associations.


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