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Cultivating Green Awareness: Report from the 2nd International Congress on Education in Botanic Gardens

Volume 2 Number 2 - July 1993

Julia Willison

Take a Spanish island off the west coast of Africa, add 90 educators and staff from botanic gardens from about 25 countries, throw in a draft Strategy for Environmental Education in Botanic Gardens and leave them alone for a week. The result? - The Second International Congress on Education in Botanic Gardens.

By holding an international congress solely on education in botanic gardens, barely two years after the first congress, the botanic garden community has shown that it takes education seriously. The Jardín Botanico Canario "Viera y Clavijo", Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain was host to the Congress during the week of 3-8 May, 1993. The Garden, together with its co-sponsors of the meeting, BGCI and the Iberian-Macaronesian Association of Botanic Gardens, organized an ambitious programme, which was guaranteed to leave even the most energetic botanic garden educator suffering from sleep deprivation!

Having listened to the comments made at the 1st Education Congress, in Utrecht in 1991, we knew that educators wanted as much active participation in the Congress as possible. We also needed to finalise the draft Strategy for Environmental Education in Botanic Gardens and help in the development of many regional education networks. It was, perhaps, a tall order considering we only had four days.

We began the Congress with a day of presentations, to set the scene for why we were there and to highlight some of the successful education programmes already going on around the world. Through these presentations we were given glimpses of what was going on in Cuba, the Czech Republic, India, Israel and Spain; it was clear that we were going to learn a lot from each other during the week.

The following day, Tuesday, we transferred the Congress proceedings from the congress centre in Las Palmas to the Garden for the rest of the week. With such a full schedule the only way to fit the number of lectures and workshops into the programme as had been arranged was to run them simultaneously. After the usual first few teething problems, everyone knew which classrooms they had to go to and at what time, and the members of the programme committee, who chaired the sessions, kept well to the time table.

Interactive Education

The theme for Tuesday's session was "Interactive Education". Delegates were exposed to a whole range of tried and tested educational activities. The list of workshops was impressive but too long to list here. However, as an example, it included "How to prepare portable educational cases for schools" by the UNAM Botanic Garden, Mexico; "Using role play games as a way of raising environmental awareness" by the International Centre for Conservation Education, UK and "How to create a botanic garden in school grounds" by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland. The day was full of ideas that educators could take back and adapt and use in their own gardens.

Public Awareness

Wednesday's theme was "Public Awareness". The workshops in the morning involved looking at how botanic gardens can spread their message to the wider public. For example, sessions looked at exhibitions (University of Oxford Botanic Garden, UK), publications ("Viera y Clavijo" Botanic Garden, Spain, BGCI) and the media (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh). Other gardens such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Geneva Botanic Garden, Switzerland also focussed on developing a garden's individual strategy for public relations. Delegates were left with no doubt that to gain the support of the public for the work they do, they need to be effective in spreading their message. These workshops provided them with some excellent ideas and some very practical ways in which to do this.

Social Perspectives of Education

The theme for the final day was "Social Perspectives of Education". A series of fascinating workshops was run, many illustrating the commitment of educators in botanic gardens to reaching audiences which are often marginalized by our societies. For example, the workshops included how botanic gardens can run outreach programmes (The New York Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Botanic Garden, USA and the National Botanical Institute, Cape Town, South Africa); how to produce environmental education materials for partially sighted people (Mascarin Botanic Garden, Réunion Island), what we can learn from Aboriginal Australians (Australian National Botanic Garden, Canberra, Australia) and how botanic gardens can reach a mixed audience (Limbe Botanic Garden, Cameroon). The sessions provoked great discussion among delegates about what were their priority audiences.

Networks of Educators

As well as taking time out to undertake an excellent tour round the "Viera y Clavijo" Botanic Garden, the delegates managed to fit in a session on national and regional networks. This proved to be a very fruitful session with some exciting initiatives described that are being taken by several education networks. For example, the German botanic garden educators looked at how they might work with BGCI to carry out a survey on the educational facilities available in botanic gardens in Germany. The Australian botanic garden educators looked at plans for a science educators' meeting in Tasmania later this year when the first conference of the Australian Network for Plant Conservation will be held. The UK botanic garden educators present discussed their plans for exhibiting at the Association of Science Educators meeting in Birmingham in January 1994 with the aim of raising awareness of education in botanic gardens to schools throughout the country. These meetings also highlighted the need to feed back results from such intiatives into the international botanic garden education network, so that we could all learn from each other.

Environmental Education Strategy for Botanic Gardens

Throughout the Congress, delegates were also involved in daily workshop sessions to discuss and finalise the draft Environmental Education Strategy. With such a diverse representation of botanic gardens, we were always assured of a dynamic discussion. Delegates willingly putting forward their opinions and ideas of how the Strategy could be made more relevant for their own Gardens. Some excellent suggestions were also offered on how we could minimise the bias towards first world perspectives on education.

Sadly, time did not permit us to come up with a finished document at the meeting itself, but together we covered a great deal of ground. The delegates whole heartedly welcomed the development of the Strategy and gave BGCI a mandate to complete and publish it. We hope that the Strategy will be published and available by the end of 1993.

The enthusiasm for the future was demonstrated at the closing ceremony when the location of the 3rd Education Congress was discussed. Several botanic gardens put forward very attractive proposals and offers which are now being considered by BGCI. The announcement of the decision made will be included in the next issue of Roots (No. 8).

As the Congress ended, delegates expressed their satisfaction at being able to come together in Gran Canaria to meet their colleagues from so many countries. It was a Congress charged with enthusiasm and optimism for the future. Delegates not only worked hard during the day but also, thanks to the impressive social calendar organized by Jardin Botanico Canario, they played hard in the evenings. One memorable event was spent sharing songs from each other's countries - an evening when many a hidden talent was uncovered.

The success of the Congress was clear. This could be measured in the ideas exchanged and numbers of new or renewed contacts made. Educators often feel that they work in isolation in their own botanic gardens with little or no support. The Congress demonstrated that there is support for their work and that environmental education in botanic gardens is an essential contribution to the survival of the planet.