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Ecological Education Potential of Botanic Gardens - a Case Study Amoung Indian School Children

Contributed by G. Valsala, Government College of Teacher Education, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala India; K. Itavi, Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad 380 009, India and P. Pushpangadan, National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, India


One of the most crucial challenges facing modern society is the environmental crisis, and there is wide spread international concern about the loss of our biodiversity and the serious consequences on our economic-ecological systems. As far as India is concerned, according to the findings of both the Botanical and Zoological Survey of India, over 1500 plant and more than 150 animal species are categorised as endangered. Therefore the problem of preserving our natural resources confronts us more than ever before, and we must find ways to protect our biological diversity for the future generation.

Agenda 21 (United Nations 1993) has emphasised that environmental education is one of the most important strategies for protecting our environment. It is being recognised that a better understanding of the environment can only come through environmental education. It aims to help us to learn about the environment in which we live; interact, grow and survive, to appreciate it; and also to make use of the nature and natural resources in a sustainable way. In addition, environmental education can also play an integrated and pivotal role in conserving biodiversity.

Therefore, the question arises how environmental education can be extended to the masses in a systematic framework? In addition, the following questions arise:

  • Who are the target groups to be identified to receive this knowledge?
  • At what level can we educate them so that they are more conscious of the importance of the environment and the human - nature relationship?
  • Is our general education system adequately designed to accomplish this challenge and what institutions are going to participate in this programme?

We have to find answers to these questions before we can design a comprehensive environmental education programme at both formal and informal levels.

Palmer (Palmer and Neal 1994) conducted a study on the development of personal concern and individual commitment for the environment. She observed that the single most important category of responses at all levels was outdoor experience, particularly at a young age. So it is now recognised that children are the most suitable target population to receive environmental education since they are more receptive and responsive to the environment as well as being the future guardians of the environment. This paper therefore explores the environmental ecological education potential of botanic gardens through a case study conducted with secondary school children. This work aimed to evolve experimental designs and methodologies for the effective implementation of environmental education, making use of botanical infrastructure in a botanic garden.

Increasingly it is now being realised that botanic gardens are superb and appropriate centres for environmental education and one can observe that botanic gardens have a long tradition and history in the field of education. Heywood (1985) observed that today, in accepting a major conservation role, it is the botanic gardens with rich flora that have a clearly defined role to play.

From the early 1990s botanic gardens all over the world have gradually focused and intensified their efforts and resources to educate the general public, especially school children; as children are the potential decision and policy makers of the future. For example the Royal Botanic Garden Kew (RBGKew) in the U.K. became the cradle of environmental education instrumentalising it for performing an effective role in propagating ecological education especially among school children. RBGKew has produced a teaching resource kit entitled Plants across the Curriculum to introduce children between 8 and 13 years to the world of plants and to make them understand the vital role it plays in our lives. So also do Australian botanic gardens which provide educational opportunities for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to learn about Australian flora and develop skills and interest in horticulture. In addition, North American public gardens place much emphasis on children's programme with preparatory or follow-up activities in the schools. In New York Botanic Garden, educational activities for the public are arranged at all levels involving the very simplest observation to formal courses for adults.

In India, the Indian Botanic Garden in Calcutta with its picturesque vistas, delightful lakes with marvellous lotus and water lilies and vast green areas, serve as a source of inspiration, recreation, education and research for thousands of visitors throughout the year. Special facilities for visitors are available in the form of guided botanical trips in the garden on Sundays and holidays. Other activities include extension services such as open week exhibitions, flower shows, film shows and the distribution of materials during Vanamahotsava. Notwithstanding these initiatives, so far no botanic gardens in India have taken serious steps to initiate environmental education except the Tropical Botanic Garden & Research Institute (TBGRI) in Thiruvananthapuram.

At TBGRI an incredible opportunity exists for imparting environmental education to students and general public. A visitor survey conducted in 1997 revealed that 75% of the visitors were students from various colleges and schools. TBGRI is now engaged in structuring, developing and implementing an environmental education programme for students to observe, understand and appreciate the plant wealth so as to use these resources judiciously for sustainable development.

This paper presents the results from one of the environmental education experiments conducted at TBGRI involving secondary school children between 1995 and 1997.

Major Objectives of the Experiment

  1. To understand the general observational ability of the students in identifying different types of plants (categorising them according to their use and economic importance in a pre-demonstration scenario).
  2. To identify the demonstration effect and ecological awareness and effectiveness of botanic gardens among school children in a post-demonstration scenario i.e. a situation in which students are already exposed and are acquainted with different plant systems and their utility.
  3. To understand the ability of students to identify different medicinal plants including spices in pre and post demonstration scenarios.

In general, the aim of the study were to find out how botanic gardens can be made into an institutional establishment that makes school children identify and understand the different types of plants which are commonly grown in our villages and/or countryside.


This study was conducted in two phases; in the first phase about 50 common plants consisting of medicinal plants, spices and fruit plants (which were usually growing in the students surroundings and seen by them every day) were selected and exhibited. The students were asked to identify the plant by writing the respective local name on a sheet of paper. After identification, a questionnaire was given to students and they had to identify the medicinal plants, spices and the plants that were common in their neighbourhood.

In the second phase, about 100 live plants were selected, demonstrated and the economic importance and the therapeutic value of the medicinal plants was explained. The students showed much interest and they were given enough time to acquaint themselves with these plants. On the second day, from this selection, about 50 plants consisting of medicinal plants, food plants, and spices were exhibited for identification. Here also the formal assessment of the experiment was done using a questionnaire.

In the first phase, as it happened to be a spontaneous and inadvertent exposure and identification, common plants that were found more in the immediate environment of the students such as home premises, school compound and waysides were selected. A small proportion (10%) of the plants were from forest areas and most common plants were selected for the experiment in order to help the students to learn about the environment in which they live, to assist them in appreciating it and to educate them on using the surroundings without damaging it.

In the second phase, 70% of the plants were rare; rare in the sense that they were not seen by the students in their immediate vicinity. This was to enable us to discover whether the students were able to identify common plants without a demonstration; and more rare plants after having an effective demonstration and acquaintance with the help of botanical infrastructure. A target group consisting of 40 students was used. This group were new to both the experiments so that each group had an equal demonstration experimental opportunity and therefore the accumulated demonstration effect of the exposure to botanic gardens (botanic infrastructure) was not accumulated in the second test.

Results and Discussions

In the pre-demonstration scenario a maximum score was 80% and the minimum was 30%; half of the students could identify 60% and above. While 70% of them were able to identify up to 50% of plants (Table 1), nearly one third (30%) of the students could not identify half of the plants. When the questionnaire was analysed it was found that this was not because of their familiarity with these plants; many of the plants were familiar but the students had not heard about, or thought about, their names.

Table 1: General ability of the students to identify different types of plants (pre-demonstration)

% of Score % of Students Cumulative % of Students
70 -80 25 25
60 – 70 25 50
50 – 60 20 70
40 – 50 17 87
30 - 40 13 100

For example Scoparia dulcis, a medicinal plant that is used for the treatment of kidney stones, was familiar to almost all the students; but the local name was not known to most of them. The same was experienced when considering the general public who had visited the garden; they were very eager to see this plant but when they saw it they exclaimed that this occurred everywhere. From this simple example it is interesting to note that the botanic infrastructure available in a botanic garden is able to play a very effective ,or a catalytic, role in providing botanical knowledge and information to students as well as the general public. However, in the case of Acacia auriculiformis, the opposite was found; none of the students revealed that this plant was seen in their immediate surroundings but 70% of them correctly identified it. This may be because of the social forestry activities that were effectively implemented by the government in public land whereby the major species selected was Acacia.

When the seeds of Adenanthera pavonia and Abrus precatorius were exhibited, the majority of the students were able to identify these plants. This observation indicates that any ecosystem element that is involved in an entertainment interaction phenomenon, especially in a magico religious framework, makes more of an imprint on students. It is interesting to note that all the fruit trees were identified correctly by almost all the students.

We saw a significant difference in the identification of medicinal plants (Table 2). 70% of the plants were medicinal but only 3% of the students were able to identify 70% of them and 6% of the students correctly identified 50% and more. Phyllanthus amaras, Eclipta alba, Elephantopus scaber, and Moringa olefera were identified as medicinal by most of the students. Rauvolfia serpentina, even though they had to study this plant in Std. IX, only 5% of the students identified it correctly. This result indicates poor knowledge by the students about our traditional medicinal plants. In the general plant identification exercise, more students were able to identify the plant by its name, but its economic utility was not clearly understood because they were using and depending on allopathic medicine for their ailments.

Table 2: General ability of the students to identify medicinal plants (Pre-demonstration)

% of score % of students Cumulative % of students
60 – 70 3 3
50 – 60 3 6
40 – 50 7 13
30 – 40 14 27
20 – 30 23 50
10 – 20 23 73
0 - 10 27 100

Although we included only 4% in the category of spices, less than 25% of the students could identify these plants correctly. They mistook some other plants like Eucalypt sp. and Thotteo siliquosa as spices. Even though this concept is included in the curriculum, 75% of the students couldn't distinguish spices from the other plants. This shows the lacunae in formal teaching as it is slightly divorced from the environment. A programme in the botanic garden will help the students to learn more about the local plants and this will develop their interest in identifying more plants and learning more about their uses and economic importance.

Post Demonstration

Analysis of the results (Table 3) shows that the maximum score was 90% and the minimum 40%. Non-availability of most of these plants in their surroundings made the identification process a little bit difficult for students; even then, 75% of the students correctly identified 50% of the plants. It is interesting to note that no one scored below 40%.

Table 3: General ability of the students to identify different types of plants (Post-demonstration)

% of score % of students Cumulative % of students
80-90 7 7
70-80 23 30
60-70 15 45
50-60 30 75
40-50 25 100

In this experiment the success of recalling the names mostly depended upon memory and the general academic performance of the students because most of these names were new to them. The power of retention varied according to the difference in the individual ability and general academic performance. Some students retain information much better than others do. According to Ebbinghaus’ experiment (1913), 66% of information can be forgotten with the lapse of one day. However, in this experiment all the students were able to remember more than 40%. Learning is the primary condition for remembering and if learning experiences are active and interesting they may create mental images for recalling when needs arise. The demonstration of these plants was much more meaningful because learning depended upon active observation, creative interest and greater attention. Here it is appropriate to quote the relevance of the famous educational dictum 'We see, we remember…'.

In the identification of medicinal plants (Table 4) a quarter (25%) of the students identified 80%, and 65% of the students identified 50% of the plants. This contrasted with 6% who identified 50% of the plants in pre-demonstration activities.

Table 4: General ability of the students to identify medicinal plants (Post-demonstration)

% of score % of students Cumulative % of students
90 – 100 7 7
80 – 90 18 25
70 – 80 15 40
60 – 70 15 55
50 – 60 10 65
40 – 50 21 86
30 - 40 7 93
20 - 30 7 100

Some of the rare medicinal plants and their frequency of identification are outlined in Table 5.

Table 5: Rare medicinal plants and their percentage of identification (Post demonstration)

Name of Plant % of identification
Trichopus zeylanicus 95
Acorus calamus 85
Gymnema sylvestris 80
Rauvolfia serpentina 75
Pseudarthria viscidia 75
Desmodium gangeticum 75

In the activity focusing on the identification of spices all the students identified more than 50%. More than a third (37%) of the students scored 83%, and two thirds (66%) of the plants were identified by 33% of the students and 30% of students identified half (50%) of the spices.

These results show that information, awareness and knowledge obtained by the students through demonstration with the help of a botanic infrastructure was exceptionally effective even beyond the scope of Ebbinghaus’ experiment.

The above comparative analysis reveals that even though there was no significant variation in performance in the general plant identification where an awareness and training was provided, as far as application of medicinal plants and spices was concerned, demonstration very effectively increased the knowledge and understanding of the students.

The first and second experiments were heterogeneous both in the case of the plants, as well as the participating students. This was to prove the efficacy of demonstration in the sense that how a particular group of students reflect back on their performance in an independent situation. So comparing the results has its own limitations because the post-demonstration intelligence and memory of the students also played an important role.


As explained earlier, this pioneering experiment shows the botanic garden itself is an effective tool in the formal and informal environmental education process. From this experiment, it is understood that children can acquire knowledge in an incidental and informal way and should be able to retain it if the collection of plants are well presented and interpreted. The results of this experiment reflect the children’s experiences in their home, school and community environment and it is hoped that these activities will get the children pondering about every day habits and occurrences in an environmental dimension.

It is hoped that the students will develop an understanding that they are a natural component of the total ecosystem. This also supports the aim that children will understand what natural resources are, how natural resources affect humans and how humans affect natural resources and thereby imbibe and inculcate in them a symbiotic interaction between humans and natural systems.

This type of experiment can make learning about the environment practical, meaningful and potentially have long term impacts on children’s attitude towards the environment in their future life. Another benefit is that children can develop many desirable attitudes and also observational skills and a scientific approach.

Botanic garden biodiversity collections can be a considerable ecological asset to enhance public understanding and appreciation of the biodiversity of their own region including inculcating a positive attitude towards the protection and conservation of biodiversity. Whether the people come informally to walk around the garden or more formally to participate in an educational activity, this opportunity must be utilised to promote the conservation activities. From the youngest pupils in school groups, to the oldest in the continuing education programme, they can all carry the message about the global ecological crisis and the need for conservation of biodiversity to a wider audience. Therefore the results obtained through the investigation help to establish, to a greater extent, that botanic gardens could be instrumentalised as a living technological system that have significant potential to impart science and environmental education focussing towards an integrated sustainable developing education.

The interaction with young minds during this programme has given us many thoughts and insights for future work. The young students have shown greater interest in fieldwork and have expressed their desire to do something practical to improve the quality of environment and protection of biodiversity.


This research programme was conducted in Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Palode, Thiruvananthapuram (between 1995 and 1997) where the authors were the faculty members/ scientists. Therefore, the authors take this opportunity to express their heart felt thanks to the Director and scientists of TBGRI for their support and cooperation.


Ebbinghaus, E. (1913) Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Columbia University Press, New York, USA.
Heywood, V.H. (1985) Changing Role of Botanic Gardens in Bramwell, D., Hamann, O., Heywood, V., Synge, H. (eds) Botanic Gardens and the World Conservation Strategy. IUCN, Academic Press, London, U.K.
Palmer, J. and Neal, P. (1994) Handbook of Environmental Education. Routledge, London, U.K.
United Nations (1993) Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development. United Nations, New York U.S.A.