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The Green Plant Blues: Engaging Students in Science Inquiry while Encouraging a Conservation Ethic in Georgia, USA

Contributed by Anne Shenk and Jennifer Ceska, The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, University of Georgia, 2450 South Milledge Avenue, Athens, Georgia, 30605 U.S.A.

‘Wow! I wonder ...

  • how long can an insect stay alive inside a pitcherplant?
  • why there are holes in the sides of this pitcherplant?
  • if more insects crawl into the pitchers at different times of the day?’

These are all questions that young scientists pose as they observe endangered pitcherplants grown in bogs on their school sites. These 'I wonder' questions quickly become fascinating science experiments for students as they formulate hypotheses such as:

‘I think that:

  • an insect can stay alive for three days in a pitcherplant
  • some insects lay eggs in the pitchers and the larvae chew their way out
  • more insects visit the pitcherplants in early morning than at any other time of day’.

Students at schools across Georgia, U.S.A. are learning about bog and other endangered plant species thanks to an exciting collaboration between three botanical gardens. Working under the umbrella of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance (GPCA), the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Callaway Gardens, and The State Botanical Garden of Georgia initiated a student endangered plant network in 1996.

The importance of protecting habitats and the concept of plants as foundations of healthy habitats are not always well understood by children. Georgia students are gaining personal experience with endangered plants through their work with the Georgia Endangered Plant Stewardship Network (GEPSN).

Zack Williams, a 7 year old student at Colham Ferry Elementary School, Oconee County, Georgia, is one of many children who has actually held and planted endangered species. He states: ‘Wow, this plant is endangered just like the whales and sea turtles. It might become extinct if we don't help.’ Zack and hundreds of other children in Georgia are caring for endangered plants right on their school site. As the children plant, hold and care for these endangered plants, they begin to care about the larger environment and the seeds of environmental stewardship are nurtured.

The Georgia Endangered Plant Stewardship Network

Working with the Georgia Endangered Plant Stewardship Network (GEPSN), students endeavour to reverse trends that threaten the environment by growing plants and raising awareness of the rare flora and habitats in their local environment. Students between 7 and 15 years become stewards for the environment by propagating rare and endangered plants from seeds and establishing these plants on their school sites or returning them to the wild. They collect data including germination, bloom time, pollinators, and seed counts and report their findings to GEPSN Headquarters.

To participate in this network, teachers attend a 20 hour training workshop to learn about Georgia's endangered species and habitats, propagation, and related science inquiry activities. Workshops also provide an opportunity for teachers to meet and learn directly from plant scientists. Dr. Jim Affolter, Director of Research at The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, conducts sessions describing how scientists study endangered plants both in situ and ex situ. Ron Determann, Conservatory Superintendent at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, provides technical expertise to develop and manage pitcherplant bogs on school sites.

Eight GEPSN workshops have been held to date with approximately 190 teachers trained. Anne Shenk, Director of Education, and Jennifer Ceska, Conservation Coordinator, both with The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, developed the Green Plant Blues workshop and teacher notebook. During the workshops, teachers are introduced to acclaimed science education projects including Wisconsin Fast Plants, Bottle Biology and Grow Lab Life Science.

Classes embark on this project by conducting a plant species count on their school site. Through this process they collect baseline data about the number and diversity of plant species on site. Then, through the GEPSN project, students work to increase the number of plants on their school grounds by adding common and endangered species native to Georgia. At the beginning of the school year, GEPSN teachers are sent a list of available wildflower and endangered plant seeds. During the school year, students grow these plants under lights in their classroom to add them to designated plots on their school sites. As the number of species increase, species diversity and the importance of biodiversity start to become meaningful concepts.

Prior to receiving seeds, teachers and their students must apply for a permit to grow endangered plant species on their site. The Georgia Natural Heritage Program, a governmental organisation within the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, is an important project collaborator. As the official state permitting agency for endangered plants, this office provides special permits for participating classes. The permitting process provides a meaningful lesson to students on legal issues related to endangered plants and on the importance of taking special care of the rare plants they are being permitted to grow.

Science Inquiry

The GEPSN project offers many opportunities for student involvement in science inquiry. Many elementary teachers (grades K-5) who attend the training workshops are not science specialists and may be intimidated by the science content. To make teachers comfortable teaching inquiry science, we introduce them to techniques that scientists use to study plants such as pollinator counts, cross-pollination techniques, sampling methods, and soil tests. At the workshops we provide teachers with skills to involve their students in processes of science.

Teachers spend time observing native plants and learning answers to ‘I wonder’ questions such as:

  • How does this plant reproduce?
  • Which part is the seed?
  • How does this carnivorous plant actually get nutrients from insects?
  • Can it grow in a different habitat?
  • What are its habitat needs?
  • Which soils have the most organic matter?
  • What insects eat plants, and which insects do the carnivorous plants eat?
  • Who pollinates this flower?

Teachers quickly discover there are a multitude of inquiry possibilities to interest and challenge their students.

Next, teachers work in teams conducting guided inquiry experiments. Broad topics for experimentation include pollination, seed dispersal, soil comparison, insect/plant relationships, pollution, and climate. After teachers complete guided inquiries, they identify the science process skills embedded in each inquiry experiment. Teachers discover they have actually conducted science process skills (classifying, comparing, measuring, asking questions, predicting, and hypothesising), and thus science is demystified. By performing the experiments and then analysing the activities, teachers become familiar with techniques scientists use to study plants (science process skills). They gain the confidence to guide their students in inquiry sessions.

Back in the classroom, teachers take their students through the same process, conducting GEPSN science inquiry investigations then identifying the science process skills used within each investigation. Next teachers lead their students into open inquiries where children design experiments to answer questions and nurture their evolving curiosity about plants.

Teachers can borrow GEPSN Science Kits from the participating botanical gardens. Kits contain inquiry activity descriptions, student worksheets, and supplies to conduct the science inquiry investigations. As student interest and concern for endangered plants grows, so do their skills as science investigators.

Endangered Plants on the School Site

In the autumn, seeds are collected from plants grown on school sites. Some seeds are saved for propagation at the school; extra seeds are sent back to GEPSN Headquarters, packaged and shared with other schools. Seeds are also collected from plants grown at participating botanical gardens. With permission from the Georgia Natural Heritage Program, additional seeds are sometimes collected by GEPSN educators and scientists in the wild.

Endangered plant seeds provided to schools include both sun and shade species. Protected plants include tree species such as the Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), a tree threatened by over-harvesting for telephone poles and wooden barrels, and herbaceous species such as Mohr’s Barbara buttons (Marshallia mohrii) threatened by loss of wet meadow habitats.

Teachers are trained to prepare raised beds and amend the soil in preparation for planting. They involve their students in designing the outdoor classroom, calculating the costs and amount of supplies needed, developing a plan for implementing the design, planting the collection, and caring for the plants. Students have overcome unattractive obstacles such as air-conditioning units and forbidding fences by planting vines to soften the landscape and attract pollinators.

Building pitcherplant bogs has been particularly appealing to participating classes. The bogs are 3m x 3m made with a plastic liner (which mimics the effect of a shallow sub-surface rock layer in wild bogs) and filled with milled sphagnum moss and sand. Watering is done with a soaker hose laid on top of the bog; the bog is built on a slight slope so fresh water will flush though the site.

Several classes have developed elaborate planting schemes. Colham Ferry Elementary School developed a butterfly-shaped garden where the abdomen of the butterfly was a pitcherplant bog and the wings were native plants that attract butterflies. We suspect the students found it interesting to observe the carnivorous bog plants eating their butterflies!

Pitcherplants are particularly interesting to young children because of their carnivorous habit. Children are surprised to learn how the pitcherplants ‘eat’ bugs (and occasionally small frogs). Most people think of plants as passive organisms photosynthesising quietly in the garden. Pitcherplants (the genus Sarracenia) are carnivorous plants found in eastern North America, mostly in the southeast United States. They capture prey with modified leaves through passive means (as opposed to active capture like the grasping ‘hands’ of Venus Flytrap). Nectar glands line the opening of the pitcher, luring insects within the lip. Once inside, stiff downward pointing hairs force the insect deeper and deeper within. The more the insect struggles, the further it descends. The inside surface is glaucous (smooth and slippery). At the bottom of the pitcher, a pool of digestive enzymes waits to digest the prey.

Carol McDonald, a teacher at Jackson County Elementary School in Danielsville, Georgia, taught her GEPSN students about the physiology of pitcherplants, drawing the modified leaves on the chalkboard. She said the students could not understand how the insects could be trapped within the open tube. They repeated the question, ‘Why don’t they just fly out?’ Once the students dissected a pitcherplant leaf from their bog garden and felt the stiff hairs and smooth interior, they understood. McDonald said the dissections were much more effective than standard classroom teaching.

In one of the science inquiry investigations entitled Insect Autopsy students count and categorise the insects caught within a single pitcher. They make comparisons between different species of pitcherplants analysing what kinds of insects different pitcherplant species trap (i.e., the flat parrot pitcherplant (S. psittacina), with a tiny opening in the pitcher, catches ants and beetles while the white-top pitcherplant (S. leucophylla), with tall wide open pitchers captures moths, butterflies, and wasps). One young student found three live moths in a pitcherplant leaf during a dissection.

All pitcherplant species in Georgia are state protected because the plants have been collected from the wild by unscrupulous nurserymen and gardeners, and the pitchers are over-harvested for the floral industry. Digging pitcherplants from the wild is inexcusable, because they can be propagated easily from seed.

Storytelling and Puppet Kits

Plant storytelling is another effective tool used in the GEPSN project to sensitise children to the plight of plants. Stories serve as a hook to draw young students into the objectives for a lesson. Children meet plant personalities such as Richard Pitcher Plant and his friends who sing the Green Plant Blues and describe their exciting lives as well as their problems. Grandpa Cedar (an endangered Atlantic white cedar) speaks of his relatives who were cut down for use as telephone poles. The Trillium Triplets (a woodland genus that has lost much of its habitat in the southeastern U.S.) tells a scary story about the day that Sucks, (Japanese honeysuckle - an invasive, introduced species in the southern U.S.) invaded their habitat and stole their home.

As problems are presented in stories, the door is opened to content learning and problem solving needed to help the characters. Some plants are admirable characters that provide humour and innocence. Donna Rosa, a pink ladyslipper orchid, is portrayed as a well known beauty queen who tells visiting reporters, ‘Have you come to admire me? You can look but do not touch!’ She encourages people not to pick her since overcollecting is a major threat to her species. The children identify with the plant characters and their emotions and concern are engaged. They want to help these plants who might otherwise seem like obscure weeds.

Plant heroines convince children that they can make a difference through their work. Richard Pitcher Plant speaks lovingly of the kind human who rescued him from the tyranny of a bulldozer in a plant rescue and carried him to his present home in a botanical garden. Donna Rosa, the pink ladyslipper, complements student reporters who have decided to start a campaign to ‘Give Plants a Voice'. Torrey, a Florida yew whose species is in imminent danger of extinction due to a pathogen, sends a warning and a message of hope. Torrey states: ‘As my species is disappearing – take warning and safeguard your habitat - your earth home - so my fate does not become yours.’

Because awareness and caring have been established, the learner identifies with the characters and is eager to find out more. Ann Blum, a writer and retired education specialist has worked with Shenk on a book of stories and activities that bring these characters and others to life.

GEPSN Science Kits include puppets and scripts for teachers to instruct and entertain young students. Teachers perform the endangered plant puppet shows for or with their children. High school classes and upper elementary students carry puppet shows to classes of young students and pass on their concern and knowledge for endangered plants to these children. Puppet and story characters can help young children become stewards of our plant communities.

Project Support

Ongoing teacher support is an important project component. GEPSN has a webpage and newsletter (The Green Plant Blues News). Both support GEPSN teachers with a current seed list, notices about upcoming workshops, background on protected plants in Georgia, and booking information for the GEPSN Endangered Plant Science Kits. In summer 1998 funding was secured to hire an intern to help coordinate support services to teachers including a GEPSN plant Hotline.

Jim Affolter, Chair, Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, and Director of Research, State Botanical Garden of Georgia, states:

The GEPSN project makes learning about endangered plants fun and stimulating, for both teachers and students. Because there are so many facets to the programme - teacher training sessions, fieldwork and gardening projects on the school sites, puppet shows and study kits - everyone has a chance to participate. Coupled with the programme's well conceived teaching philosophy and strong follow-up support, this approach provides a recipe for success that could be repeated in many communities, wherever teachers are searching for ways to engage young students in issues and methods of plant conservation.

The project has been supported with funds from the Eisenhower Plan for Math and Science Education, the Georgia Initiative in Math and Science, the Turner Foundation and The Garden Club of Georgia.