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Botanical Electives within the Smith College Summer Science Programme

Contributed by Susan McGlew, The Botanic Garden of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, USA.

The Smith Summer Science Program (SSSP) is a one-month residential program for young women with strong interests and talents in science. Each summer, a group of high school students from across the US and abroad come to SSSP to do hands-on research with Smith faculty members in the life and physical sciences. The Botanic Garden of Smith College (BGSC) is well positioned to serve this Program, with diverse collections of plant materials represented in our rock garden, campus arboretum, various climatic zones within the conservatory, and nearby woodland areas. Botanical electives within this program are in a process of constant evolution. The following topics are presented on a rotating basis. Two sessions, each two weeks in length, are offered every July

The Diverse World of Plants elective explores plant life-cycles and the diversity of form and function within the plant kingdom. Wisconsin fast plants (rapid-cycling Brassica rapa) are employed in classroom studies investigating germination, growth, pollination, and seed formation. Additionally, the systematics garden at Smith is utilized to illustrate the relationship of orders within the plant kingdom.

The Ethnobotany elective investigates botanical influences in the lives and cultures of the participating students, as well as a variety of diverse cultures throughout the world. Using the BGSC collections, students discover the many fascinating and useful crops of the world. Investigations include a forensic botany "murder mystery" to solve, and projects on plants used for food (chocolate, jam-, and bread-making), fiber (paper and papyrus construction), and beauty (manufacture of cosmetics).

Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture is an elective which investigates the students' connections to the land. Methods of low-input and low-impact agriculture are explored, including organic, biodynamic, integrated pest-management (IPM), and aquaculture systems. Composting and vermicomposting projects illustrate the impact of kitchen waste generated by the SSSP meal-site. Trips into the field help farmers enrolled in local IPM projects to scout and trap pest populations.

The newest elective, entitled Medicines, Potions and Poisons, is an investigation of the history and uses of medicinal, psychoactive and poisonous or allergic plants by humans. In this project, students explore the medicinal uses of plants in a variety of cultures throughout history. Investigations include the synthesis of aspirin (from the genus Salix), and a close look at cancer cells and the way that taxol (from the genus Taxus) is employed by cancer researchers.