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Go West! Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens

Background

The western part of the Australian state of New South Wales is sparsely populated, with the bigger towns hundreds of miles apart.

Many of the children in this vast area attend schools, staffed by one or two teachers, with enrolments from eight to 40. The schools are often reached only by gravel roads that become impassable in wet weather. Distance precludes some students from attending school and so they are taught by means of radio lessons and curriculum materials provided by the Distance Education programme. Many of these rural students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have never visited the coast and have never been to Sydney or any other big city. Significant numbers of them are aboriginal children.

In 1982 the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney initiated an educational programme for western schools called Royal Botanic Gardens Goes West. This programme was repeated a number of times in the 1980s and again in 1992 and 1993. Sponsorship from Nissan, B.P. Australia and the New South Wales Department of Education supplements the cost to the Gardens.


Programme Aims

The aims of the programme are as follows:

For students to:

  • develop an interest in plants
  • interact with a variety of live and preserved plant material that they would otherwise not experience
  • display a greater interest in plants of their own
  • indicate a desire to know more about plants beyond their own school and town environments.

For teachers to:

  • make greater efforts to include environmental education in their teaching
  • take up opportunities for plant related in-service training
  • try out new teaching techniques and teaching programmes.

For communities to:

  • participate in school lessons provided by Royal Botanic Gardens Goes West
  • use the wide range of activities and services provided by the Education, Scientific and Horticulture sections of the Royal Botanic Gardens
  • understand how the work of the Royal Botanic Gardens is relevant to their lives
  • share information on local plants, aboriginal plant use, etc. with Royal Botanic Gardens staff.


The School Programme

Using four-wheel drive vehicles laden with plant specimens, education officers and other Gardens personnel visit isolated schools and their communities. At each school, there is a day of plant-focused activities. The specific programmes in each case have been earlier negotiated with the teacher to ensure that they complement and enhance the school's own environmental and science programmes. Children studying by distance education are also invited to attend the nearest school for the day and many parents manage to bring them hundreds of miles for this special event.

The Community Programme

The project is not confined to the delivery of lessons and activities for school students. Community activities are also undertaken, ranging from public meetings in bigger centres to explain the role of the Royal Botanic Gardens, to small, after-school parent gatherings to talk about horticulture. Community members, particularly women trying to establish gardens on their dry outback properties, are interested in gardening, and several 'gardening clinics' are held where the horticulturist assisting the education officer identifies problems and suggests remedies. The horticulturist is also available to advise schools and students on appropriate plants and planting techniques for the individual school gardens, encouraging the use of local species identified by the Gardens Herbarium staff.

Current Australian syllabus documents recognise the importance of aboriginal culture and its use of plants. Team members on each visit seek out the aboriginal community. This has resulted in a number of valuable contacts and contributions. For example, at Enngonia, where the aboriginal community is setting up a commercial garden, the horticulturist was able to advise and demonstrate tree- planting methods. And at Weilmoringle, a particularly isolated region, the local aboriginal people took us on an extensive bush tour to demonstrate their use of plants for food and medicine.

Transporting Plants

Although the programme is generally undertaken in spring, the extreme distances, poor roads and high temperatures pose major problems for plant specimens, which must be repeatedly loaded and unloaded and handled by numbers of students.

Over the years improved systems for transporting plant specimens have been developed. In particular deep plastic trays, fitted with wooden bases and inserts for pots and with locking lids, have reduced damage and plant mortality considerably. Even so, it is necessary to take at least two sets of all plants in order to allow each set to be rested at frequent intervals.

Plant species carried include algae, mosses, ferns, gymnosperms and angiosperms. Some emphasis is given to the spectacular. The children find insectivorous plants, cacti, giant seaweeds and unusual flowers all exciting stimuli for learning about plants. Ten metre long kelp fronds fascinate children who have never seen the sea. After a few days, the smell fascinates us!


Conclusion

As might be expected, the project is well received by the isolated communities who feel that their children lack many of the opportunities afforded urban children.

The senior executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens is also extremely supportive, believing that the program enhances the image of the gardens as serving a wider community than its Sydney base. The Gardens provide financial and other assistance, although the labour-intensive nature of the project necessitates additional sponsorship.

Publicity, particularly in country areas, is always positive with local radio stations tracking the progress of the expedition as it moves through the outback, and interviewing participants at regular intervals.

From the education service's point of view Royal Botanic Gardens Goes West is a valuable programme, although labour-intensive. Contacting schools, determining individual programmes, seeking sponsorships, preparing plants and spending two weeks travelling the outback are clearly time consuming.

We feel that the result is well worth the effort and our present intention is to continue the project as an annual event.