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Educational Activity at the University of Padua Botanic Garden: An Educational Experiment for Blind Schoolboys

Contributed by R.Ondertoller*, M.Zuanelli*, A.Todaro**, N.Tornadore ** and P.Giulini**
*Italian Blind Union, via Barbarigo 15-35100, Padua, Italy. **Botanical Garden of Padua University, Via Orto Botanico 15, I-35123 Padua, Italy

Introduction

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 the dissemination of an appreciation of 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 sue in schools (Curti, 1993).

For this purpose, educational materials and equipment belonging to the Botanical 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 Botanical Garden.

Activities were included in the teachers’ annual teaching schedule and involved three levels of proficiency: the knowledge and the description of facts, the ability to make connections between different facts, and the personal application of similar connections in new contexts. Finally, these activities were introduced in an inter- and pluri-disciplinary perspective (Orefice, 1993). The lessons were held throughout the entire school year, although certain activities could only be carried out in the Botanical Garden. For the first time in Italy, pre-university schools were offered an opportunity to experiment in a rigorous and structured way, a method of study based on a sequence of research-observation-discovery (Curti, 1993). Thus the Botanical Garden was transformed into a decentralized classroom.

The Botanical Garden and the Visually Handicapped Student

A challenge arose to make the Botanical Garden ‘visible’ to students with partial sight. At Padua there is a local branch of the Italian Blind Union and, at one time, there used to be an institute for partially sighted students, with an elementary and middle school annex. This no longer exists, as partially sighted students now attend ‘normal’ schools. The solution to this problem was to be able to offer these students a programmed educational service that fully satisfied the Ministerial programmes and their educational needs, and made full use of the material available at the Botanical 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’ students could, with minor changes, be utilized by partially sighted students as well. The first problem was to draw up a list of plants which would be useful for the teachers while carrying out the programme. Teachers had requested that sufficient species were made available to show the characteristic of the principal biotic communities of our mountains. Fifty-two species were initially suggested. The choice later concentrated on 27 species; this was based on feedback from the partially sighted students and from their teachers. Finally a total of 35 species was agreed to be adequate. The 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 metres 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 Botanical 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 metre), in order that the 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 dimensions and with forms as similar as possible to the adult plant. The partiallys ighted person lacks the ability to comprehend the real form and structure of the foliage and the dimensions in height of a tall tree. At the end of this work an educational itinerary had been created – to be enjoyed by all types of school classes. This is important because at the present-time partially sighted students attend the same classes as the seeing students. The plants are easily replaceable. The educational mission of the Botanical Garden is able to respond in a rigorous, organic and coherent way to the objectives and aims of the teaching of the natural sciences froreseen by the programs of the Ministry of Education (Todaro et al., 1994).

The Garden Visit

During a visit to the Botanical 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 exemple 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 Botanical 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 evident that, with only slight adjustments, the greater part of the educational material of the Garden could be used by both seeing and partially sighted students (Todaro & Tornadore, 1995). For example, the label provided with each pot indicates, in normal writing and in Braille, the common name of the plant, the scientific name, the family and the area of origin. The part 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:

For elementary schools:

The morphology of a tree (Fig. 6-9); history of a fruit-tree; the apple (Fig. 10-13); the stories of the old oak tree; educational cards to fill up during a visit to the Garden.

For middle schools:

Illustrated atlas of plant anatomy (Trisciuzzi, 1992; Bonfanti et al., 1993) (Fig. 14); the medicinal plants of the Botanical Garden; the history of the Botanical Garden (three volumes); a visit to the Botanical Garden (three pamphlets); a wooden book describing a tree (Fig. 15); the historic trees in the Botanical Garden.

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, if the students have assimilated them 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 Botanical 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 Botanical Garden’ and finally ‘Save the Trees in the Botanical Garden’ (Fig. 17), a game of collaboration set up on the tested methodology of role play and including pedagogical, cognitive, social, creative and recreational aspects. A rich teaching agenda is proposed coupled with an ecological theme which allows the players to touch on specific topics such as the history of the Botanical Garden, its historical trees and their safeguard, the various collections (medicinal, poisonous, aquatic plants, etc.) as well as themes of a more general character such as botany, pollution, ecology, etc.

Conclusions

The visit of the seeing and partially sighted students to the Botanical 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 studey 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.

Bibliography

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Curti, L. (1993). L'attività didattica negli orti botanici. In: Didattica museale per operatori dei musei scientifici e naturalistici. ANMS, p.109-115.

Curti, L., & Todaro, A. (1993). Attività didattica per non vedenti all'Orto Botanico dell'Università di Padova. Museol.sci., 10, p. 63-69.

Orefice, P. (1993). Didattica dell'ambiente. Nuova Italia. Firenze, Italy.

Rebecchi, M.G. (ed.) (1990). Conoscere l'ambiente. Juvenilia. Modena, Italy.

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Todaro, A., & Tornadore, N. (1995). L'Orto Botanico di Padova e la didattica pre-universitaria. Giorn.Bot.Ital., 129(2), p.220.

Trisciuzzi, L. (1992). Manuale di didattica per l'handicap. Laterza. Bari, Italy.