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The great plant hunt

Volume 5 Number 2 - October 2008
Angela McFarlane

French title: La grande chasse aux plantes

Spanish title: La gran búsqueda de plantas

Summary

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has a long and successful history of working with schools at our gardens in South West London and Wakehurst Place in Sussex. Just under 100,000 children enjoyed organised visits in 2007 and 2008. But to celebrate Darwin200 (a national programme to celebrate the impact that Darwin's ideas had on evolution), and our 250th anniversary in 2009 we are embarking on The Great Plant Hunt. This exciting and challenging project will take plant science and conservation into every primary school in the UK. Funded by The Wellcome Trust we will be sending a treasure chest of resources to 22,000 maintained primary schools in March ready for them to start studying the native spring flowering species that grow around them, whether in the local park, beauty spot or cracks in the playground. A website, produced in partnership with The Guardian (newspaper and website), will connect schools to share their findings, uniting British children in the largest ever project to collect and bank the seeds of one species. By engaging children in real science will help them to appreciate not only the great contribution Darwin made to science but how real life plant hunters still play a vital role in understanding and saving our plant heritage, and that they too can make a contribution.

It is usual for botanic gardens to have a clear mission to inspire and educate our visitors, in particular the young. Through its two properties at Wakehurst Place and in Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has nearly 100,000 school visitors a year with over 250,000 children visiting with their families. We are delighted to enjoy the company of so many young people, but there is a limit to the number we can reach directly. And yet the messages we have to offer young people about the importance of plants in their lives, and the need to better understand and protect plant life are equally important to all.

In 2007 RBG, Kew engaged a consultant to review the learning activities across Kew, and recommend how we could make our offer more attractive to more people and increase the impact of our messages. The result was Kew’s Learning Agenda, with its four key messages:

  • Plants and plant diversity are vital for life.
  • Kew maintains diverse and beautiful gardens where threatened plants are cared for.
  • Kew leads science-based plant and fungal conservation worldwide.
  • And you can take action too.

We were also set the ambitious challenge of reaching out to every child in the UK. So in addition to our onsite schools and families operation, we were looking for a way to engage with an outreach programme that could take our work and the work of botanic gardens to every child. The result is our most exciting schools project so far.

To coincide with the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, Kew has teamed up with the Wellcome Trust to create The Great Plant Hunt. This innovative project aims to get primary school children out and about and excited by nature. The Great Plant Hunt will offer children aged 5-11 hands-on experience of what it's like to be a plant hunter, working with Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank scientists who play a vital role in saving our natural world heritage.

In March 2009, Kew will be sending the UK’s 22,000 primary schools a Treasure Chest full of free resources to be used in the classroom, online and in the great outdoors. The activities are clearly mapped to the primary science curriculum and include fun activities for Years 1-6. With exciting missions to discover plants in the wild (from the school playing fields to weeds growing in the cracks in the pavement!), The Great Plant Hunt also gives children the chance to be part of the UK's biggest ever school science project. Year 5 children will be invited to take part in a unique experiment to help Kew's Millennium Seed Bank build the world's largest, and most genetically diverse, collection of seeds from a single species. The heart of The Great Plant Hunt is children doing real science in a fun and accessible way. Dr Steven Sinkins, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University, observed that Charles Darwin, perhaps the most influential scientist of all time, made meticulous observations of nature and maintained an open mind in interpreting what he found. His methods were low-tech, but his science has revolutionised our understanding of the world and of our place in it. Children in schools across the country can readily follow his inspiring example.

People often forget how young Charles Darwin was when he set out for foreign shores on the Beagle. We all know him as a bearded old man but in actual fact he was a mere stripling of 22 when he started his travels overseas. On his return, still not 30, he was a national celebrity.

The project is already causing some excitement. On 1st July, the anniversary of the first reading of Darwin and Wallace’s papers at the Linnaean Society in London, we launched the project website where teachers can find the information they need to plan the project into next year’s lessons. Teachers are invited to register their interest in the project by visiting www.kew.org/great-plant-hunt. In the first week over 1100 schools had registered.

Mick Waters, Director of Curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is looking forward to the project: “Children are fascinated by plants. Darwin challenged the thinking of his time. He asked key scientific questions. Teachers have to sow the seeds of learning...we're trying to grow scientists! This project will help.”

All the materials developed for the project will be made available through the web under a creative commons licence. This means that anyone who wants to can take the material and reproduce or amend it for their use so long as they acknowledge the source and do not sell the materials. We are also making the materials in such a way that they can easily be localised for use outside the UK. We have had interest from as far away as Brazil, the US and Australia. We plan to develop some of the materials for use within the gardens at Kew and Wakehurst Place and hope these will be of use to other gardens wishing to mark Darwin200.

Through The Great Plant Hunt we hope to introduce the nation’s children to a lifetime of caring for the natural world. Who knows, we may find the next Darwin!

Résumé

Une longue histoire de partenariats scolaires florissants est associée aux Jardins botaniques royaux de Kew, dans nos jardins du sud-ouest de Londres et de Wakehurst Place dans le Sussex. Presque 100 000 enfants ont participé à des visites guidées en 07/08. Et pour célébrer le bicentenaire de Darwin, et notre 250ème anniversaire en 2009, nous nous lançons dans « La grande chasse aux plantes ». À travers ce projet passionnant et ambitieux, des notions de botanique et de conservation seront diffusées dans toutes les écoles primaires du Royaume-Uni. Avec le soutien du Wellcome Trust, nous enverrons en mars une malle aux trésors de ressources à 22,000 écoles primaires financées par l’Etat. Elles permettront l’étude d’espèces indigènes à fleurs printanières qui poussent dans leurs environs, dans les parcs alentour, les lieux pittoresques ou les fissures de la cour de récréation. Un site internet, réalisé en collaboration avec The Guardian, mettra les écoles en réseau pour partager leurs résultats, rassemblant ainsi les enfants du Royaume-Uni dans le plus important des projets de collectage et de mise en banque de semences d’une même espèce. L'introduction des sciences pures aux enfants leur permettra d’apprécier la remarquable contribution de Darwin à la science, de même que le rôle crucial encore joué par les chasseurs de plantes actuels quant à la compréhension et la conservation de notre patrimoine végétal. Ils verront qu’eux aussi peuvent apporter leur contribution.

Resumen

Los Reales Jardines Botánicos de Kew, cuentan ya con una larga y exitosa trayectoria trabajando con escuelas en nuestros jardines en el Sur Oeste de Londres y en Wakehurst Place en Sussex. Poco menos de 100 000 niños y niñas disfrutaron visitas organizadas en 2007 y 2008. Pero para celebrar el bicentenario de Darwin y los 250 años en 2009 de los Jardines Reales de Kew, estamos emprendiendo “La gran búsqueda de plantas”. Este emocionante y retador proyecto llevará la ciencia de las plantas y la conservación a todas las escuelas primarias del Reino Unido. Financiado por el Fideicomiso Wellcome, en el mes de marzo enviaremos un cofre de tesoros para 22,000 escuelas primarias con los recursos necesarios para que estudien y las especies nativas que florecen en esa época, ya sea en el parque cercano, en las jardineras o entre las grietas del patio escolar. Un sitio web, producido en colaboración con el periódico The Guardian, conectará a las escuelas para compartir sus descubrimientos, uniendo así a los niños y niñas británicos en un proyecto sin precedentes para colectar y almacenar las semillas en un gran banco de semillas de estas especies. Involucrar a las niñas y niños en un proyecto científico real les permite apreciar no solo la importante contribución de Darwin a la ciencia, sino también como los buscadores de plantas en la actualidad aún juegan un papel vital para el conocimiento y protección de nuestro patrimonio vegetal, y que ellos también pueden contribuir a protegerlo.

Professor Angela McFarlane
Director of Content and Learning
Royal Botanic Gardens
Kew
Richmond
Surrey
TW9 3AB
Email: A.McFarlane@kew.org