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Gondwana Connection - partnerships for learning

Volume 1 Number 2 - October 2004

Kathy Stewart


The Australian Biota Study Day is a school excursion where Education Officers from the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney join with those from the Australian Museum and Taronga Zoo to provide a unique learning experience for senior biology students. On the day 16-17 year old students visit the Australian Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney and Taronga Zoo Educators (stationed at the RBGS Education Centre) for hands-on workshops that deepen their understanding of the evolution and adaptations of Australian native plants and animals


Education programmes for senior school students are offered by many excursion venues yet this visitor group can be particularly difficult to entice into learning environments beyond the school classroom. In New South Wales the final two years of schooling culminate in major examinations.  These often determined students' future career pathways – it is a significant time for students, their families and their teachers.

Education officers from the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (RBGS), the Australian Museum (Austmus) and Taronga Zoo recognised the need for an excursion programme that attracted senior schools by addressing curriculum requirements and offering efficient use of the excursion day. In 2000 a new senior biology syllabus was released to schools presenting an opportunity for the three institutions to create a joint programme for this group of students. A pilot programme called the Australian Biota Study Day was developed and successfully trialled at the end of 2000.  Now in its fifth year, the study day is routinely offered by the three venues as part of their schools’ programme.

The Australian Biota Study Day

The combined resources of the RBGS, Austmus and Taronga Zoo enable senior biology students to experience the following:

  • living environments similar to those at critical times in Australia's geological past, including a grove of the Wollemi Pine's closest relatives – the Hoop Pine and Queensland Kauri Pine as well as the Wollemi Pine itself
  • actual fossils from sites such as Riversleigh (20 million years ago), Tingamurra (50 million years ago) and Talbragar (175 million years ago)
  • live animals that demonstrate links with our Gondwanan heritage such as the echnida, blue-tongue lizards, rainbow lorikeets

The logistics of the day involve four classes (up to 100 students) visiting the RBGS and the Austmus. Taronga Zoo transports its educator accompanied by a host of supporting animals in the 'Zoomobile' to the Gardens each day.  Students and their class teacher spend two hours at each location, taking a further hour to have lunch and walk between the venues. Bookings are taken by the Austmus and students are charged a nominal fee which is divided between the three institutions.

In the session at the Royal Botanic Gardens, students compare the Wollemi Pine and its relatives to fossil members of the Araucariaceae (Agathis jurassica from the Talbragar Fish Bed fossils found near Mudgee in New South Wales).  They are helped to visualise prehistoric environments by visiting various locations in the Garden where the plant displays consist of modern day examples of primitive plant species. Students are also able to continue their study of pollination and dispersal mechanisms of Australian plants using the live specimens growing in the Gardens.

The Zoomobile transports an exciting range of Australian animals from Taronga Zoo to the visiting students. ' Pugsly' the echidna and ' Spike' the rainbow lorikeet dominate the day's events and are very popular with the students and their teachers. Students have close physical contact with the animals – under the watchful eye of the zoo educator who directs and focuses student attention to particular features of the animal that enables them to survive in their particular environment. Evaluation of the day reveals that this experience with live animals is a highly memorable and engaging feature of the day for students and their teachers.

At the Australian Museum students review evidence that indicates Australia was once part of Gondwana and study key Australian fossils that shed light on the nature of past environments. Students can trace evolutionary changes that led to animals such as the platypus, koala, thylacine and kangaroo.

Educational Features of the Study Day

Education officers involved in the project agree that there are a range of critical educational components of the day.  One of the most important being, that students are able to physically interact with the resources of the three institutions. The resources used, such as live plants and animals, garden displays, objects and exhibitions meet a range of criteria including:

  • relevance to the specific syllabus content
  • interest to senior students 
  • able to be handled or accessed by students
  • physically transportable to locations off site

Throughout the study day, students are encouraged to keep a record of the day. Traditionally this takes the form of worksheets containing questions that focus students’ attention on specific features of the session. Teachers involved with the programme are sent a set of worksheets that cover the activities set for the day.  However education officers involved in the programme are mindful that the completion of worksheets does not distract student attention from the unique opportunity to observe and interact with the rich range of resources available. School groups are encouraged to bring cameras to record visual images of the resources and activities they encounter. In some cases groups are able to take selected specimens (such as plant material) back to school for further study.

Teachers and students are asked for feedback to monitor the impact of the programme. Evaluation sheets are given to each participating teacher and collected at the end of the day. A number of students are also surveyed to obtain their feedback. Changes to content, worksheets, timing and location of the study days have been made in response to the evaluation of the programme.

Examples of teacher feedback about the day
"Students were fully occupied. This was good. Very relevant to the topic"
"Excellent organisation overall. Wonderful opportunity for hands on viewing of species and fossil specimens."
"Excellent resources and exhibitions. We don't have access to many of these resources."

Examples of student feedback
"Gives us a chance to see what we are studying close up."
"Better than a day at school."
"Busy, a bit short of time but enjoyable."


The success of the Australian Biota Study Day has resulted in expanding its range of locations from Sydney to Mount Annan and Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens and most recently to Dubbo Plains Zoo. These new sites for the study day facilitate access to the resources of the three institutions to those schools that may not be able to travel to Sydney.

The study day series averages per year 2000 students from up to 80 secondary schools across New South Wales. The programme is a vital component of the range of school programmes offered by the RBGS, Austmus and Taronga Zoo and plays a significant role in the education of adolescents about the evolution, diversity and adaptations of Australian plants and animals.


La Journée d’Etude du Biotope australien est une sortie scolaire où les responsables pédagogiques du Royal Botanic Garden Sydney (RBGS) se joignent à ceux du musée australien et du Tarongo Zoo pour offrir une chance unique aux étudiants en dernière année de biologie de développer leurs connaissances. Pendant la journée, les étudiants de 16-17 ans rencontrent les éducateurs du RBGS, du musée australien et du Taronga Zoo (situé au Centre Educatif du RBGS) pour des ateliers pratiques qui leur permettent d’approfondir leurs connaissances de l’évolution et des adaptations des plantes et des animaux indigènes d’Australie.


El día de estudio de la Biota Australiana consiste de una excursión escolar donde los funcionarios educativos de los Royal Botanic Gardens de Sydney (RGBS) se unen a los del Zoo de Taronga para dar una experiencia de enseñanza única a los estudiantes de biología más mayores.  En ese día, los estudiantes de 16 y 17 años visitan a los educadores del Museo Australiano, el Real Jardín Botánico de Sydney y del  Zoo de Taronga (localizados en el Centro de Educación del RBGS) para asistir a talleres prácticos que profundizan su entendimiento de la evolución y de la adaptación de las plantas y animales autóctonos de Australia.

Kathy Stewart is the Community Education Officer and Coordinator of School Progammes, Royal Botanic Gardens, Mrs Macquaries Road Sydney NSW 2000, Australia.