Second and third graders are learning a lot about edible plants, when their teachers and volunteers from the University of California Botanical Garden can keep them from eating the experiments.
"Teacher, the hose is leaking everywhere!"
Thus Aluoch Kaluoch learns about soaker hoses and thirsty plants, like the seedlings he has just planted in the second and third graders' garden behind Oxford Elementary School in Berkeley, Ca.
A participant in Botany on Your Plate, an HHMI-funded project of the University of California, Berkeley Botanical Garden (http://www.mip.berkeley.edu/garden), he's already discovered that fruit is the container that holds and protects the seeds of a plant and that seeds contain new baby plants. He is more than ready to put his new knowledge into action.
First there is some hands-on learning in the classroom, led by UC Berkeley environmental sciences major Ilana Stout, involving toothpicks, handheld magnifying glasses, cucumbers, tomatoes and grapes. "How many seeds does each fruit have?" Stout asks. "Which has bigger seeds? Does any fruit have seeds on the outside? What about a strawberry?"
Then she hands out peanuts in the shell, one per child. "Crack it open..." The sound of seven-year-olds bashing nuts fills the room. "...very carefully," Stout continues, replacing several smashed peanuts. "I want you to look for the baby plant inside."
The college senior, teachers Cathy Jones and Katie Johnson, and volunteers move around the room, checking dissected peanuts, pointing out the tiny curl of a new peanut plant encased between kernels.
"The only problem with this kind of science teaching is that the kids are always wanting to eat their experiments," says Stout with a grin.
Then, Aluoch and his classmates tumble out the school's back doors, trailing a cart piled with starter pots of vegetables and flowering plants. The children dash across a paved play yard to their garden bed, banked high against a fence.
Brief tussles over who is going to get to plant what are resolved by clarion voice and warning look, the magic wands of second and third grade teachers everywhere. Before long, holes have been dug to measured depths, little plants have been shaken loose from their starter pots and tucked into the ground. Finally the soaker hose is turned on to give them a deep, slow drink.
Botany on Your Plate is part of a precollege science education program that brings the extensive botanical resources of the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley into the classrooms of local elementary and middle schools. Using an HHMI grant of $175,000 awarded in 1997, the Botanical Garden has developed two environmental science curricula that it is testing in four Berkeley schools. Sixth graders study California habitats, while second and third graders explore the parts of plants: roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruit and seeds. Both age groups get a chance to put what they've learned to work in their own school gardens.
"We're teaching more than botany," says Jennifer White, the UC Botanical Garden's associate director for education and program director of the HHMI project there. "We're teaching reading, writing, math and nutrition. And we hope we are helping urban children develop a sense of stewardship of their earth's resources."
During each year of the grant, sixth graders at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Middle School measure and analyze the factors affecting plants growing in microhabitats at their school: air and soil temperature, moisture and light levels. Teams of students adopt eight types of California habitats, analyzing the topography, temperature and rainfall variations. From the Botanical Garden's collection, they place in each the live plants most likely to survive. Then they take a field trip to the Botanical Garden, to compare first hand how plants adapt to survive in other California habitats.
Committed to community involvement, the program recruited four parents and 12 senior volunteers who give the youngsters individualized attention during the classes and field trips.
The project also supported the Young Black Scientists, an after-school club. The club's sixth, seventh and eighth grade members' school attendance and grades improved dramatically, and the group now is gathering information about medicinal plants from Africa, to be included in an educational brochure published by the Botanical Garden.