Promoting science participation through garden explorations

Lisa K. Wagner and Mary E. Olien

South Carolina Botanical Garden, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, USA

Kids, adults, caterpillars, and flowers made science discovery come to life during Garden Explorations at the South Carolina Botanical Garden (SCBG) in Clemson, USA. An inquiry-based program, Garden Explorations focuses on promoting science participation by girls, as well as providing professional development opportunities for teachers and pre-service teachers. By involving girls, their families, and teachers in hands-on, inquiry-based science activities, Garden Explorations supports and encourages participants' interest in science (particularly life sciences and ecology). The hope is that further explorations and discoveries will be made after the end of the program.

Garden Explorations has two primary components: Family Science Saturdays sessions and a two-week Summer Science Camp. Both use the themes 'Plants and their partners', 'Plants and their environment' and 'Web of life' to explore the South Carolina Botanical Garden's 270 acres of niche gardens and natural areas, as well as using the classroom and teaching greenhouse to carry out inquiry-based activities.

Family Science Saturday sessions took place over three consecutive Saturday mornings. Participants were 4th, 5th, and 6th grade girls (ages 9-12), accompanied by an adult family member or friend. Teachers and pre-service teachers, who served as facilitators for each session, came for pre-session workshops on the Thursday prior to each Saturday. At these workshops, facilitators learned how to use inquiry-based teaching techniques by modeling activities planned for families on Saturday. The two-week Summer Science Camp incorporated all three Garden Explorations themes; it was preceded by a one-week pre-session workshop for teachers and pre-service teachers.

Lessons were modified from excellent existing curricula, using hands-on, inquiry-based activities from The Life Cycle of Butterflies (a National Science Resources Center unit), as well as activities in The Growing Classroom: Garden-based Science, GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds, and Hands-On Nature: Exploring Nature with Children. Using Garden Exploration tote bags to carry notebooks, insect nets, microscopes, and other gear, participants carried out investigations in the Garden's managed and natural areas, using activities designed to engage and actively involve participants in 'doing science'.

Inquiry-oriented techniques encouraged participants to 'see' and discover things for themselves. Children and adults quickly became absorbed in investigating, observing, and sharing their discoveries. Brainstorming sessions and group discussions stimulated active exploration of ideas, both during pre-session workshops and the sessions themselves. For example, participants wrote mock 'advertisements' to invite bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to visit flowers and shared them with the rest of the group. This set the stage for a lively field investigation of how frequently pollinators visited different kinds of flowers in both the 'Plants and their partners' Family Science Saturday session as well as during the Summer Science Camp.

The South Carolina Botanical Garden is a great place to have a science camp based on the themes Plants and their Partners, Plants and their Environment, and Web of Life. For example, the Wildflower Meadow, at its peak in June, is a magical place to compare the favorite flowers of bumblebees, honeybees, and butterflies and follow the intricacies of their paths from flower to flower. The comment from one of our elementary education graduates during the pre-camp workshop was telling; after expressing his enthusiam for the activity, he said "I hadn't thought that there were any differences in flower visitors before - or that it was even interesting."

The 'Web of Life' program began by using topographic maps to discover where the Garden's stream finishes (in the campus lakes near the football practice fields), followed by testing experimentally how soil and vegetation affect water and sediment movement. Participants also investigated how the stream changes in its paths from above the Garden's ponds towards the Beech Grove and what happens along the way. Iridescent adult mayflies, ferns, dragonflies, diving beetle larvae, blue-green algae, mosquito fish, crayfish, and various interesting sediment dwellers were just a few of the organisms encountered along the way. Side trips to the wonderfully frog-rich Meadow Pond made an interesting comparison to the biological diversity present in the Duck Pond and the Heritage Pond.

The girls' faces over the two-week camp told the story of the camp's success: the excitement over seeing that their caterpillar had formed a chrysalis, amazement at the spectrum of colors on a beetle under the MagiscopeTM, and the enthusiasm when a dragonfly larva or a tadpole was discovered.

The Garden's lecture room served as the camp headquarters for two weeks (belieing its sedate character during adult programs the rest of the year). Everyday scenes (when participants were not out in the Garden) included: close-up observation of discoveries, using field guides for identification, creating realistic paper flowers, constructing a water environment (complete with animals made out of modeling clay) and, closing each morning with a rousing song called 'Six Plant Parts' (complete with choruses).

Preparing for 65 girls and adults at the Garden for two weeks, arranging van transportation and planning snacks for hefty appetites, were background requirements for the camp. As it turned out, one of the favorite snack periods involved using tweezers, straws, and scraping tools to compare how chewing, biting, and sucking insects could eat cookies, apples, green peppers, grapes, and bananas. This was a great hands-on activity, but imagine the results of all of the campers eating cookies with tweezers!

Hands-on learning reached well beyond the Summer Science Camp and Family Science Saturday. It is estimated that the Garden Explorations program will reach well over 1,200 additional children over the course of this year and the following. The impact on teachers, pre-service teachers, and their students, with the involvement of friends and other family members will increase the multiplier effect.

In the Summer Science Camp, approximately two-thirds of the participants were from low-income families; it is hard to underestimate the opportunity that participation in this program represented for them. However, for all of the participants, if some become scientists, or science teachers, or simply remain interested in science as a result of the program, it will be grant money well spent.

The results of the project have been very encouraging and support the effectiveness of using an inquiry-based approach in a public garden setting. Assessment and evalution surveys reflect the importance of open-ended experiences in encouraging student, teacher, and adult interest in science. Joint exploration of new discoveries made learning a cooperative experience. Mutual enjoyment of the activities was strong reinforcement for continued science investigations by both girls and adults.

The inquiry approach of Garden Explorations is simple: encourage close observation of the natural world, promote open exploration of ideas and "I wonder ... " questions, allow ample time for investigation, and see science happen!

The program was made possible by grants from the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, a United States Department of Education program administrated through the South Carolina Department of Education, and the AAUW (American Association of University Woman) Educational Foundation. Both organizations support programs that promote science participations, especially in under-represented groups.


Jaffe, R. & Appel, G. (1990). The Growing Classroom: Garden-based Science. Addison-Wesley. 480 pp.

Lingelbach, J. (ed.). (1986). Hands-on Nature: Information and Activities for Exploring the Environment with Children. Vermont Institute of Natural Science. 233 pp.

National Science Resources Center & Science and Technology for Children. (1992). The Life Cycle of Butterflies: Teacher's Guide. Carolina Biological Supply Company. 123 pp.

Pranis, E. & Cohen. J. (1990). GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds. National Gardening Association. Burlington, Vermont. 307 pp.

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