Have any favorite memories of school?
Haha! Sometimes it’s hard to get back into the frame of mind of being a young student… I loved the walks my middle school teacher Bill would take us on in parks to identify plants around Seattle. In art I had the freedom to draw what I wanted and gravitated towards the quite and observant world of botanical illustration. Yet the time outside of school often felt the most electric, because I did what I really wanted! Drama classes and choir camps… I think at an early age we know where our talents and sympathies lie. But often schools give such a broad over view of subjects and in such an abstract context that it can’t help but loose the spark of self initiation and personal relevance. Maybe partly because of this I’ve always thought it would be great fun to develop programs outside of school for students that love the same subjects. The kids have all chosen to be there, and you have freedom to be wildly interdisciplinary, while encouraging critical thinking skills. This year at the Volunteer Park Conservatory I’ve created a back door for kids to see into the inner workings of our greenhouses and learn more about where all our plants come from and why botany and environmental science are so important and fascinating.
We had two sessions for our day camp that we called “Around the World in Four Days” one at the beginning and another at the end of summer. Many students enrolled with friends, and some parents asked to be involved too. It was a community effort. I involved botany students from the University of Washington, gardeners from the Conservatory, and various specialists from the Friends of the Conservatory. It was a good group. We explored our way through the plant kingdom by visiting the collections, doing scavenger hunts, and building terrariums for deserts and rainforests. Kids could learn what belonged to a particular region, could curate the piece themselves labeling all the plants, and learned to care for them and took their terrariums home at the end of the four days.
Almost everyone came in having particular plants they gravitated towards, yet there was a much bigger picture those plants were a part of. We started class by looking at the regions the plants came from. We looked at how the wind, weather, and topography all work together to create the unique environments that plants grow out of and respond to as we pondered words like evolution…
Most of our students had been to the Conservatory before but many had never seen or touched a globe that didn’t divide down national boundaries. The globe I painted described regions where plants and animal communities share a common environment. This opened up a whole host of questions… Why are some spots warmer than others? What is weather? How does it move around the earth? We experimented making clouds in glass jars as well as saw how dew drops and rain forms with a little help from water and ice cubes inside metal cups. We even talked about how we make the climates in the various greenhouses at the Conservatory to reproduce the conditions nearer the equator the best we can. Throughout all this students each kept a detailed journal that they decorated and wrote their notes in.
We didn’t just talk about evolution as a concept we looked at how it happened over generations of plants living in a climate and successfully reproducing. We looked at orchids as an example of an incredibly diverse species of plants that has made a life most often in the canopy of trees, just where certain insects and birds can pollinate them. These orchids form bonds with their pollinator not only through offering it nectar but also mimicking how they look or creating the perfect landing pad for them.
Kids got to look at some of the many orchids in our collection, draw and label their parts,
and even pollinate their own flowers toothpicks in hand!
Then the orchids that they learned to pollinate went in their journals with a number of other pressed plant parts. It was cool to see students first botanical drawings next to the real plants. Their journals were full of drawings and keep sakes to remember all they learned.
After exploring the many things that shaped a plant above ground we also looked below at roots and soil. With collections of dirt from all over the state students saw how combining sand, clay, and humus in varying amounts formed very different soils for each region, and thus very different communities of plants. Some were hard and repelled water, while others were like big sponges. Everyone got to guess which soil belonged to which location.
Then we set up the microscopes and looked a little deeper…
even on the smallest level we could see life in the soil. Bacteria that formed beneficial relationships with plants actually helped roots absorb nutrients from the soil. Of course if there was more plant debris in the soil then there was likely to be more microorganisms, and more beneficial relationships. Maybe this next year we can test that theory, and find out if these cultures can be introduced to poorer soils for bioremediation projects. Or perhaps even better have some friends from EarthCorp teach us about how places like Gas Works Park have been cleaned up through introducing a network of the right microorganisms.
We wrapped camp up by looking again at these many relationships on a large scale. Students drew the plants and animals they’d learned about and placed them where they would normally live on a giant mural. And every student got to tell their own story about how that being was special and an important part of the woven tapestry of life. Parents arrived for the presentation and for pictures. And after the students had packed up all their drawings, terrariums, and other goodies we got to hear from parents and guardians how much the kids were talking about class every day over dinner. When you’re growing corn from a kernel, measuring it’s growth, studying it’s structure, making tortillas from ground corn fried in a skillet with melted cheese on top, you’re gonna have a lot to say, right? After such a successful class and such great students I’m happy to see summer around the corner and kids already signing up to explore the Conservatory and some of our worlds many treasures.