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Revitalising Educational Activities in the Oldest Botanic Garden of Russia

Contributed by Alla Andreeva and Artyom Parshin, Botanic Garden of Moscow University, Prospect Mira 26, 129090, Moscow, Russia

Introduction

The Botanic Garden of Moscow University is one of the oldest scientific and educational organisations in Russia. Founded by Peter the Great in 1706 almost 50 years before the Moscow University, now the garden attracts attention not only because of its interesting botanical collection, but also because of its historical significance. Subsequent recognition of the historical value of the site has resulted in it having the status and official designation as a Historical Monument.

The garden covers approximately 6.5 hectares and includes the arboretum, the pool with a wetland plants collection, the pond and several glasshouses. There are about 1300 species (both in the open grounds and under glass) in the garden; the content of the collections reflects the educational purpose of the establishment. The Subtropical House dates back to the 1870s and has a well preserved brickwork facade and some interesting interior features such as the cast iron pillars and water lily pools. There are collections of succulents, plants from the Mediterranean regions and tender coniferous plants displayed in the Subtropical House. In the Palm House one can see a wide range of tropical plants including some palms up to 17m high and 150 years old and a cycad (Cycas circinalis L.), probably one of the oldest potted plants in the world (more than 200 years old) is also housed here. In other glasshouses, there are special collections of orchids, bromeliads as well as ferns and other interesting groups of plants.

History

The garden was first founded as an Apothecaries Garden for raising medicinal plants and teaching plant science to future doctors. Thus, from the first years of its existence the garden has been an important centre of education. The garden originally belonged to the Moscow Hospital and subsequently to the Medical Academy. During this period, specialists invited from abroad furnished the garden. Among them were Traugot Gerber, doctor of medicine from Leipzig University, the first Director of the Garden, and Professor Friedrich Stephan. These scientists, contemporary leaders in medicine, plant science and horticulture, brought to Russia professional skills and also knowledge of the latest achievements of European botanical science and fashion in gardens.

When the Medical Academy moved to St. Petersburg in 1804, the garden was abandoned. In 1805, Moscow University, the most respected educational establishment in the country, purchased the site to be transformed into a proper botanic garden. Georg Franz Hoffman, from Goettingen University, Germany, was invited to become the first Director of the Garden. Since then the garden has always served conventional botanic educational purposes and research based on its rich collection. Also from that time onwards, regular lectures and guided tours for the general public and those curious about plants were organised in the garden. Since then, the new stage in the development of education in the garden began: education for the general public.

Almost 300 years have passed since the foundation of the garden. The times have changed and every period of Russian and Moscow history has been followed by changes in the garden, not only in its appearance, but also in its aims and tasks, including education. However, in every period of the garden’s history, education has remained the main part of its work and this too has determined the content of its collections.

The garden has known golden age periods and periods when it has fallen into decay. The golden age periods have taught us to be optimistic, because after every period of decay a new golden age has followed.

Currently the garden is facing such a positive period. Since 1995, the garden has been undergoing reconstruction, this programme aims to enhance the layout of the garden, restore and rebuild the glasshouses, improve the library and education facilities and generally maximise the potential of this important resource. Improvement of these components finally leads to the revitalising of educational activity, since education is one of the garden’s main strategic directions.

Founded many years ago in the outskirts of Moscow, nowadays the garden is located in the centre of the modern megalopolis, surrounded by busy streets, including one of the city’s principal roads, Prospect Mira. Because of this, it has appeared to be a hot spot of ecological problems. These new circumstances have defined a new role for the botanic garden as a unique place for environmental education; in fact one could not find a better place for it.

Education Programme

Taking into consideration the importance of the aims and tasks of contemporary botanic gardens, according to the Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy (IUCN-BGCS and WWF 1989), the new educational programme is being developed in the Botanic Garden of Moscow University.

The direction that science is taking within the education programme involves the following topics: plant science, ecology, environment, geography and gardening. Structurally, the ecological programme can be divided into three levels of education:

  1. information
  2. general environmental education
  3. scientific.

When the gardens education programme is fully functioning it will target several groups: the students of the University and other higher schools, primary and secondary school children and teachers (fitting the national curricula as well as offering more beyond them), senior people, families and the general public.

The new educational activities in the garden combine methodical approaches to education; guided tours and lectures conventional for botanic gardens; together with modern ones such as training courses for teachers and experimental and practical work with children. These are as follows:

Guided tours for:

  • students of Moscow University
  • students of medical academies and colleges
  • school children
  • general public

Methodical courses for:

  • primary school teachers
  • secondary school teachers

Experimental and practical work with children for:

  • special groups (Young Ecologists club)
  • school children

Thus, a new trend in education associated with botanic gardens is emerging. The transition from passive forms of education to active ones is obvious.

Resources

As the gardens is still, and will remain, in the university’s possession, provision of facilities for teaching of plant related sciences is one of the major tasks within the programme. Classes given by the scientific staff members in the garden are included in the curricula of several university departments. University students regularly come to the garden in groups to have lectures and demonstrations in the glasshouses.

The garden (with the temporary exception of the glasshouses) is open to the general public and no entrance fee applies. That means that we have to organise the educational space in the garden so that every visitor can learn more about the plants in the garden.

Labelling and interpretation are very important and we are now working on this with the help of BP, the sponsor of the garden’s environmental education programme.

Young Ecologists Club

The environment education programme was set up with the aim of using the garden as a teaching resource for children living in the city. In the first stage of the development of this programme, the Young Ecologists Club (YEC) was established.

The Young Ecologists Club conducts after-school sessions for different age groups, giving children aged between 8 and 14 years an opportunity to learn more about the natural world through observation, experimentation and practical work in the garden.

The aim of the YEC is to:

  • develop the interest of children in plants and their life;
  • teach children to observe nature;
  • teach some specific aspects and general perspectives on the complex relationships of man [sic] and the biosphere;
  • study the relationships between plants and other components of ecosystems; and
  • teach children practical skills to enable them to work with plants.

Through their own research experience under the scientific supervision of their tutors, the members of the club learn about modern environmental trends, methods and techniques, as well as classic ones such as the use of microscopes and other laboratory equipment, herbarium techniques, bird watching, and assessment of the condition of plants in the garden in particular with reference to the influence of various factors such as air pollution.

The main principles of teaching members of the YEC are to:

  • give children the opportunity to develop knowledge via their own experience and practice; and
  • first ask: ‘why?’ ‘how?’ and then observe and study; secondly: analyse and generalise; and thirdly: discuss, compare and intepret the results.

According to the children’s interest, we give them the opportunity to develop some experimental or practical projects in the garden, which will be presented in ecological competitions and journals.

Teacher Training Programme

The second stage of developing of the educational programme has been the Teacher’s Programme; the training course for teachers of primary and secondary schools was started in 1999.

The aim of the Teacher’s Programme is to encourage a wide number of schools to visit the garden and to take advantage of the learning opportunities which the garden offers to pupils from the city. It enables teachers to learn how to:

  • organise experimental work with school children in school yards and investigate the practical techniques that can be used; and
  • use the resources of the botanic garden in environmental education.

The course includes themes that match the different levels of education. These are as follows:

For primary school teachers:

1. Methods of nature observation with children, using special activity pack materials that look at:

  • seasons in plant life
  • plants and other components of ecosystems (e.g. soil, litter, insects, soil fauna, birds, mushrooms)
  • plant reproduction (e.g. flowers, fruits and seeds, dispersal agents, time)
  • phenological observations
  • identification of trees in summer and in winter (e.g. flowers, leaves, buds and habit).

2. Collections of the garden’s arboretum addressing:

  • trees and shrubs (local and introduced species)
  • wetland plants
  • early flowering bulbous plants and ephemeroids.

For teachers of secondary schools
Undertaking plant state assessments in cities (trees and shrubs) – How does the tree ‘feel’? and looking at:

  • influence of traffic related factors, including air pollution, on trees
  • soil experimental techniques
  • cycling in forest ecosystems
  • litter decomposition rates in different ecosystems
  • trees bioproductivity
  • time and rhythms in plant life (idea of spatial-time organisation in biosphere).

The course programme was devised after consultation with a wide range of environmental educators in Russia and the U.K. and encompasses some of the most recent approaches to environmental education. It focuses on active environmental education outdoors, using activity pack materials, which were developed by specialists within the garden.

Conclusion

To conclude, the revitalising of educational activities in the oldest botanic garden of Russia aims to develop both classical and traditional approaches, as well as the new ones in accordance with the Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy (IUCN-BGCS and WWF 1989). These include:

  • to make the education more active, than passive, using the modern forms and methods;
  • to replenish the ecological programme with the new environmental content; and
  • to widen the audience through attracting different target groups.

Reference

IUCN-BGCS and WWF (1989) The Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy. IUCN, Gland.

   

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