Gardens Illustrated
A horticultural apprentice at Kew gardens

Make plant science cool at school again to help save the planet

Published: August 25, 2022 at 10:09 am
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Julia Willison, head of learning and participation at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, believes we need to be teaching younger generations more about plants and nature

A headline in The Times recently grabbed my attention as it spoke to a matter that is very close to my heart, and one that occupies my time here at Kew Gardens – plant education. Much has been said in recent years about the role science and education will play in preserving our planet as we face the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss and yet, as the article claimed, there is a divide between our younger generations and the ‘botanical world’.

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Our future is botanic

The article’s assertions were based on a new study by researchers at Leeds University, who in the journal Ecology and Evolution, published some startling conclusions about students’ ability to identify plants – results as startling as they are worrying for the future. The paper’s authors argued that not enough is being taught in our schools and universities to inform even a ‘basic’ understanding of plant science and plant identification, and that ‘nature literacy’ must be a key skill held by those in the engineering, planning, farming and teaching professions, among others. It is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with.

Gardeners at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Credit: RBG Kew

From the 100k school students we welcome on visits to Kew and Wakehurst annually, to the hundreds who complete our courses in horticulture, taxonomy and mycology, Kew has built a great reputation for education, but the scale of the challenge is such that more is needed. In our 10-year strategy, Our Manifesto for Change, one of the top five priorities is to Train the Next Generation. We agree with the potential that nature-based solutions could offer us in tackling the planetary emergency and that there is huge potential for jobs for the future in this area but we need to make plant sciences cool again so that we are attracting the very best into the field.

These skills enhance our appreciation of and bring us closer to the natural world

We have a long and proud history of training new generations of horticulturists, offering professional qualifications in the study of plant cultivation as early as 1859. And since 1963, Kew offers the prestigious Kew Diploma, which has been widely recognised as one of the world’s foremost qualifications in botanical horticulture, allowing dedicated and enthusiastic horticulturists a shot at arming themselves with theoretical, scientific, and practical skills over a three-year course. Furthermore, our educational programming involves a raft of apprenticeships and internships, in both science as well as horticulture, through Kew’s School of Horticulture, making the available options more diverse and accessible to a wider audience.

The study writes: ‘civilization is dependent upon plants (and fungi) for survival’

These are all valuable skills that enhance our appreciation of and bring us closer to the natural world - a world human activity has pushed to the brink of two major crises. But Kew’s education work does not stop there and just as the researchers at Leeds have pointed out, we see gaps in knowledge across multiple curricula, across multiple levels of education and amongst teachers themselves, many of whom have no knowledge beyond GCSE biology. To address this, we have developed resources for teachers as well as excellent guided visits for school groups and a great Youth Explainer programme for secondary school students.

In 2018 we also launched the Endeavour programme, an online learning platform that focuses the breadth of Kew’s botanical and mycological knowledge, into an invaluable resource for teachers and pupils looking to explore career options in the horticultural industry or scientific fields. The feedback from teachers who have engaged with Endeavour has been astoundingly positive.

So, although it may seem worrying to learn of a divide between pupils and the natural world, Kew is very much committed to helping to bridge the gaps. Because as the study’s authors write in their paper, ‘civilization is dependent upon plants (and fungi) for survival’ and we very much agree that our future is botanic.

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