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This Dome is Your Home: Using an Icon Facility to Teach Education for Sustainability

Jan Ellis
Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mount Coot-tha, Brisbane, Australia

Botanic gardens are important centres for education. There are over 1,600 in the world, which between them maintain the largest collection of plants outside nature. Botanic gardens as members of the Botanic Gardens Conservation International have aligned themselves with major international strategies for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development; therefore the environmental education role of botanic gardens is significant, with over 600 million visitors worldwide every year (Murray 2000).

Botanic gardens are uniquely placed to provide learning experiences that encourage all members of the community to personally embrace the concept of living sustainably and, in particular, to recognise our dependence upon plants. Plants are the basis of all life on Earth. Plants touch every area of our lives, providing us with commodities such as food, shelter, energy, medicine, clothes, and oxygen. Botanic gardens are not just an amazing educational resource persuading us to protect plants, but they provide a place in which one can actually make contact with nature. This connection with nature, also known as education in the environment (Fien 1993) is an important step in educating people to care for nature. This concept is incorporated into ‘connectedness to the world’ one of the major strategies within the Education Queensland Curriculum (Herschell 2001)

The Brisbane Botanic Gardens at Mount Coot-tha provides a valuable outdoor learning experience for school excursions that complements and integrates Education Queensland curricula by participation in one of our 90-minute Lessons in the Gardens programmes. ‘Biosphere 3: This Dome is your Home’ is one of our programmes available for years 4–10 that encourages investigating, understanding and communication (working scientifically) about education for sustainability. The 90-minute programme is supported with both pre and post-activities.

Within Biosphere 3 (years 4–7) students relate the Dome’s closed ecosystem to the Earth’s biosphere. They consider what resources they might require and actions they would have to take, if the Dome were their life-support system. Students in years 8–10 use the Dome as an example of a miniature ecosystem. They measure significant abiotic factors and use information to evaluate the consequences of interactions on natural cycles and environmental sustainability on both miniature and global scales. A brief outline of ‘Biosphere 3: This Dome is Your Home’ for years 4–7 is included below.

Biosphere 1

The biosphere is the thin shell that supports life on Earth. It comprises the living layer covering the surface of the Earth, from the deepest ocean to up to the rarified air. The natural systems in the biosphere are complex, self-regulating and interconnected. Physical cycles continually recycle energy and matter, making it possible to sustain a diverse range of living things. Within different ecosystems, multitudes of interdependent organisms flourish. This biodiversity results in a resilient natural system.

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 is a giant experimental glasshouse in the Arizona desert. It covers an area of 1.3 ha and contains five wilderness areas or miniature ecosystems (rainforest, savannah, ocean, marshland, and an arid zone) each with a range of animals and plants. There is also a habitat area as well as an agricultural area for cultivating food plants and domestic animals (e.g. chickens, goats, tilapia fish). The aim of this experiment was to increase our understanding of the processes that occur in Biosphere 1 – the Earth – and to try to establish a sustainable system.

Using a space–frame construction and made from glass and steel, Biosphere 2 is sealed so tightly that it loses only 10% of its atmosphere per year – an ordinary office block exchanges its atmosphere with the outside world about 16 times a day.

In September 1991 eight volunteers, four women and four men, who had undergone three years’ intensive training, were sealed inside Biosphere 2 for two years. All air, water and waste had to be recycled and all food had to be produced within the Biosphere structure. It was however open to energy inputs and information exchange. Sunlight provided the basic energy for photosynthesis and natural gas-powered generators provided the electrical energy for the technical systems.

Mechanical devices were required to perform some functions that occur naturally on Earth, such as pumps and fans for air movement, a wave machine in the ocean and computer-controlled sprinkler systems for rainfall. Over 2000 sensors took continual readings of a range of factors such as temperature, humidity. Some 3800 different sorts of plants and animals were selected for Biosphere 2; each had to justify its inclusion by performing a useful function.

The volunteers spent approximately four hours per day in activities involved with food production and four hours undertaking scientific observations and experiments. The sealed experiment ended in 1993 but the Biosphere continues to be used for further studies.

Biosphere 3: this dome is your home

Rationale and objectives
Students will use the Tropical Dome at Mount Coot-tha Gardens as an example of a miniature planet Earth in which to explore essential life processes and our relationship with (and dependence on) our environment.
Students will have the opportunity to develop:
• an awareness of the value of botanic gardens;
• an understanding of the needs of living organisms, particularly people;
• an appreciation of complex scientific experiments;
• observation and data collection skills;
• problem-solving skills;
• an awareness of our impact on our environment and the importance of sustainability.

Elements of the programme
The programme session begins by discussing people's needs and how our environment supplies them.
The Tropical Dome is introduced to students as a possible Biosphere 3. It is however an area designed for the display of rainforest plants and not as an ecological system. Students investigate the environment and compare its structure and processes with natural ecosystems. With this understanding they discuss possible ways in which the Dome may be modified to form a sustainable environment. The students then consider human influences on the environment and the likely long-term effects on Biosphere 1 – Planet Earth.

The youth of today need to embrace sustainable living and the world ethic of sustainability (IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1990-1991); not just in their heads (as knowledge) but within their hearts (involving passion and caring) and hands (actions). ‘Biosphere 3: This Dome is your Home’ is an effective learning experience in which this can take place in a non-threatening manner, as they take part in a role play, in which the Brisbane Botanic Gardens icon becomes their spaceship as they leave Planet Earth to colonise Planet X.

They have learnt about how fragile and complex Planet Earth is, they have identified with the story of Biosphere 2 and how those participants became reconnected with their environment as ‘everything they did had an influence’; such a cause-and-effect relationship is not as obvious in Biosphere 1. Biosphere 3 provides them with an encounter with plants and their environment (it is hot and humid within the Dome) that is unsustainable and leaves them with a challenge to live sustainably – caring for nature and caring for people.


Fien, J (1993). Education for the environment: critical curriculum theorising and environmental education. Deakin University, Geelong, Australia.
Herschell, P. (2001). Why aligning curriculum and assessment in new times is ultimately a pedagogy question. The Queensland science teacher (27) 5, Science Teachers Association of Queensland.
IUCN, UNEP WWF (1990-1991). Caring for the earth: a strategy for sustainable living. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
Murray, R. (2000). Launch into the future ‘The Dome is Your Home’. Workshop Notes May 2000, Botanic Gardens Mt. Coot-tha, Brisbane, Australia. Unpublished.