Wednesday, August 20, 2014

At Matthaei, Children's Ed Is As Much an Education for Interns as for the Kids

By Matthaei-Nichols summer 2014 interns Genevra Galura and Diana Bach

 “Are all these plants real?” ”Do you live here?” “Look! An ostrich!” (Note: we don’t have ostriches at the Botanical Gardens but we did, on this occasion, see an osprey flying over Willow Pond.)

As children’s education interns, we hear a lot of cute, insightful, and just plain funny kid-isms from children that visit the Botanical Gardens. We’re constantly surprised by the acuity and knowledge of our young visitors, who soak up information and then love to share what they know, whether it’s that one time they saw a frog in their backyard or their detailed knowledge of the Venus fly trap.

Much of our time in children’s ed is spent leading guided tours for the many school groups, summer camps, scout troops, and families that come to visit the gardens’ conservatory and trails. Our groups range from preschoolers to college students, and everything in between. Aside from traditional tours, we also develop and run other programs with more specialized topics. This summer our programs have run the gamut from making recycled paper, teaching gardening skills, catching and studying insects, and cooking with herbs. We don’t come into the job as experts on all of these topics but learn a lot as we go. It’s a unique and challenging job, but we love the constant learning!

One of the most rewarding programs we’ve done this year was in conjunction with Scarlett Middle School and the University of Michigan MAC (Master of Arts with Certification) education program. We partnered with the school’s summer program to develop a lesson plan for 6th-8th graders studying ecosystems.
During two field trips to Matthaei, middle school students studied the aquatic ecosystems found here. 

Students learned about the water cycle, watersheds, and the ways humans affect these habitats. Most importantly, the kids conducted ecosystem assessments firsthand. Using Willow Pond, the constructed wetlands, and Fleming Creek at Matthaei, we collected water samples to test physical characteristics and complete a biodiversity count of the aquatic organisms found in each water body. It was high-level science, but the kids rose to the occasion and had fun while they were at it. The most rewarding part of this experience was exposing the students to hands-on science; some of them would never have thought they’d be catching crayfish, identifying dragonfly larvae, or sticking their nose in pond water to see how it smelled.

A constant challenge for us as educators is our ever-changing and diverse audience. Every day children come to us from different ages, places, backgrounds, and experiences. Some arrive already loving nature and full of excitement to be on the trails, while others have never experienced the woods and need some coaxing to realize the outdoors is not a scary place. While we do aim to teach these kids about insects or plant parts or whatever they might be here for, our goal reaches further than that. We hope to provide a positive experience in nature so that children grow up appreciating the outdoors and all the natural world has to offer us. This is core to the mission of Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum; as a living museum, we’re educating future generations to preserve and protect the beauty of the natural world.

Diana Bach, from Chelsea, MI, is a recent graduate and first-year master's student studying environmental engineering with interests also in sustainable food systems and environmental education.

Genevra Galura, from Saline, MI, is a junior studying cellular and molecular biology.

Diana Bach

Genevra Galura