Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Natural Science Institute in Botany and Ecology for Elementary Teachers

Volume 1 Number 27 - December 2003

Barbara Addelson





For over fifteen years the Missouri Botanical Garden, USA, has been offering professional development workshops to teachers in ecology and environmental science.  These workshops range from single day sessions on particular ecosystems, such as wetlands or tropical rain forests, to week-long courses on school-yard ecology.  Courses are also offered to institutes and are held over a period of nine or ten months.

Design Principles for Professional Development Programs

Single session workshops play an important role in introducing teachers to a particular topic and the garden’s educational resources.  They can also serve as a stepping-stone to professional development programs. While these courses are valuable in themselves, however, research indicates that their long-term impact is insubstantial.  At Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) we found that by committing ourselves to long-term involvement in courses, both teachers and students benefited substantially.  This is in keeping with the recommendations of the National Science Education Standards, published by the National Research Council in the United States.

In developing or modifying a long-term course in ecology we take into account the various design principles advocated in the National Education Standards, (visit The National Academies Press Website, National Science Education Standards, Section 4, Standard for Professional Development for Teachers of Science.)  This involves more effort than designing a week-long workshop on the same topic, but the gains are significantly greater.  (see Roots 21, December 2000, pp:  “Evaluation Gets Results” for more on the evaluation and success of this model).  

Ten years ago, we set up the Natural Science Institute for Elementary Teachers.  The major focus of the Institute is ecology, indeed, nearly 70% of the courses are devoted to the teaching of this science.  Every year, 25 teachers meet for two consecutive days each month from February through to June. This provides them with an opportunity to assimilate the content between sessions and to teach some of the activities to their students.  It also enables them to reflect upon both their understanding of ecological concepts and the pedagogy used to teach them. Journal assignments are used to assess the teachers’ comprehension and give us an insight into how comfortable they feel in implementing the teaching strategies.

Content Sequencing

When we begin designing a course on ecology there is always a lot of discussion about what topics to cover and which activities to use.  Virtually all our lessons use hands-on and/or inquiry based activities.  The virtue of teaching this way is that you can provide teachers with a model of how to teach science effectively. In fact using the same lessons for teachers that are proposed for students has been found to be successful in getting the content across to teachers.  In designing the course, we also have to be aware that it is easy to fall into the habit of designing a course based on the activities we like rather than carefully laying out the scope and sequence of the course first and then choosing the activities.  One of our most important design practices is to determine which ecological concepts are the most critical to cover.  We then sequence them so they flow in an order that will help teachers gain the greatest understanding of the content and allow them to build upon a firm foundation.  This holds true for both the single daylong class on an ecology topic, or an extended course covering the major ecological concepts.  It is only when we have completed the framework that we review the wealth of exemplary ecology lessons we have available and select, based upon our time frame and audience, those lessons to be used to teach each concept.  

Although there are many possible starting points for a course in ecology, we have tended toward focus initially on organisms and work our way up towards the concept of ecosystems, as shown in the diagram below.


In looking at the organism as a starting point, we focus not on its biology, but on the concepts of its habitat, the adaptations it has for living in its environment, and the niche or role of the organism in its environment.  We spend a great deal of time and use an array of activities to address the concept of an adaptation as a structural or behavioral feature of an organism that enables it to live in its environment.  Teachers, as well as students, often find this a complex idea, as many of them come with the misconception that an adaptation is a change an organism makes, and it can be hard to divest them of this idea.  Review of their journal entries, in which they explain their understanding of the big ideas covered during the two-day meetings, enables us to check for comprehension and to see what further clarification is needed.

Once we cross the hurdle of adaptations, we delve into the process of natural selection within a population using simulation activities to illustrate the concept of change over generations and the eventual dominance of advantageous features.  Other concepts related to a population of a single species of organism are covered, such as population distribution, fluctuations and carrying capacity.  Next we begin to discuss populations of different species interacting and arrive at the concept of a community.  Within the realm of communities we use activities to understand species interactions including food chains and food webs, predator-prey relationships and pollination.  Finally we investigate the abiotic or non-living components upon which organisms rely and with which they interact in their environment.  This interaction of living things with each other and with their non-living environment constitutes an ecosystem.  

A variety of ecosystems are represented at the Missouri Botanical Garden and its satellite sites, Shaw Nature Reserve and Litzsinger Road Ecology Center.  Teachers explore the tropical rain forest in the Garden’s Climatron®, temperate deciduous forest at the Ecology Center and grasslands in the prairies at the Nature Reserve.  In visiting the sites teachers learn about the influence of climate and soil conditions on the development of these ecosystems.  The concepts learned earlier are also strengthened through exploring specific organisms found in each ecosystem and looking at the adaptations they have for survival, as well as examining other food webs and species interactions that occur there.  

All of this understanding is constructed during multiple sessions held over the course of five months, allowing the teachers to test their understanding and the activities with their students and reflect upon both.  This intensive and prolonged methodology allows the staff of the Garden and the teachers to build strong and lasting relationships.  It also creates a corps of teachers who can support one another in their professional practice.  This model of professional development for teachers in ecology or any other science has proven to have a greater and longer lasting impact than any other model we have used to date.


Over the past 10 years we have found that the essential ingredients for a successful professional development program in ecology are using hands-on and inquiry-based activities that teachers can in turn use to teach their students.  By carefully selecting and sequencing the concepts to be covered, the teachers’ ability to build a strong foundation of understanding in ecology increases.  Providing opportunities for teachers to test, assess and modify the activities to suit their students’ needs and then write their reflections in their monthly journals appears to solidify their continued use of the lessons and the teaching strategies modeled throughout the course.  In summing up, it is important to take careful stock of the teachers’ needs, as well as your goals in terms of content and teaching methods, as you plan any professional development.  The care you take in designing your course will go a long way to insuring its success.


National Research Council (1996) National Science Education Standards.  National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.  USA.

DeBuhr, Larry E. and Addelson, Barbara.  (2000) Evaluation Gets Results.  Roots 21, 25-28.


Travaillant avec plus de 25 enseignants sur une formation étalée sur l’hiver et le printemps de chaque année, le Jardin Botanique du Missouri s’efforce d’aider les enseignants de l’école élémentaire à comprendre les concepts essentiels et les principes fondamentaux de l’écologie et des sciences de l’environnement. Durant 10 jours à l’institut de sciences naturelles en botanique et en écologie, nous passons près de 70% de la formation à engager les enseignants dans des activités interactives et/ou de questionnement pour augmenter leur compréhension de l’écologie, le reste du temps, nous leur expliquons comment utiliser cet acquis dans leurs classes. Les rencontres durent 2 jours consécutifs chaque mois ce qui permet un temps de réflexion entre les sessions mensuelles. Nous avons fourni aux enseignants un journal de bord pour évaluer à la fois leur compréhension des contenus et aussi l’impact de nos méthodes sur leur propre stratégie d’enseignement. En procédant ainsi, nous maintenons un contact qui soutient tous les participants de la formation dans la durée. Cela s’est avéré avoir un impact beaucoup plus grand qu’un atelier unique d’une semaine sur le même sujet ou un sujet similaire.


Cada ano, el Missouri Botanical Garden trabaja con hasta 25 profesores durante el curso del invierna y la primavera con el motivo de ayudarles a comprender los conceptos esenciales y los principios fundamentales de la ecología y la ciencia de medio ambiente. En el curso de 10 días del Instituto de Ciencias Naturales en Botánica y ecología, nos pasamos casi el 70% del curso en actividades practicas y/u otras basadas en encuestas para aumentar su comprensión del contenido ecológico a la vez que se crean modelos de lecciones que puedan luego trasladar a las aulas. Nos reunimos durante dos días consecutivos cada mes, así permitiendo la reflexión entre las sesiones mensuales. Les facilitamos deberes a los profesores para poder asesorar su comprensión del contenido así como el impacto de nuestros métodos en sus propias estrategias educativas. De esta forma a la vez sostenemos y apoyamos a todos los que participan en el curso. Se ha probado que en este u otros temas, esto tiene un impacto mucho mayor que un solo taller de una semana.

About the Author

Barbara Addelson is Senior Manager of Education at Missouri Botanical Garden, P.O. Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166, USA.  Tel: (1) 314 577 5100. Fax: (1) 314 577 9521. Email: