Plants are the most important, least understood, most taken for granted of all living things.
– Malcom Wilkens (1988) as cited in Babaian & Twigg (2011)
Biology professors Caryn Babaian and Paul Twigg describe how ethnobotanical topics and the arts can be used to encourage student interest in plants in The Power of Plants: Introducing Ethnobotany & Biophilia into Your Biology Class.
Babaian & Twigg (2011) state that topics in biology ranging from soil science, microbiology, seed biology, entomology, botany, and economic botany can be presented as relevant and timely issues using ethnobotany as a teaching platform.
Ethnobotany is the study of our cultural relationships with plants. The root word ethno- means “nation” (Borror, 1971).
The ethnobotany lessons and accompanying lab developed by the authors were created for a course whose main themes were ecology, culture, and our attraction toward living things (i.e., biophilia as described by biologist E.O. Wilson). Babaian & Twigg (2011) wanted to equip students with the ability to describe the concept of ethnobotany, articulate how plants are used in other cultures, become knowledgeable about local native plants, understand how humans are dependent upon plants for medicine, and experience how the arts can enhance student learning in biology.
To accomplish these objectives, Babaian & Twigg (2011) lead students through several activities.
Prior to studying whole plants, students studied the soil in which they grew. By studying the “rhizosphere” (Babaian & Twig, 2011), students learned about soil science.
Learning about the medicinal value of familiar foods such as onions and garlic, helped students gain appreciation for why medicinal plants must be protected.
A study of how plants are integral parts in the clothing, rituals, and beliefs of people in other cultures provided students a holistic approach to learning about plants.
Discussions about the symbiotic relationship between bacteria and plants served as the foundation for lessons in microbiology, and journaling enhanced the learning experience by serving as a record of what was learned and experienced.
Throughout the ethnobotany course, students kept an ethnobotanical journal in which they documented collection procedures, collected photographs, and illustrated their observations. Babaian & Twigg (2011) advocate the use of drawing as a learning tool because drawing allows students to “stay in the moment” and brings each “student to a more intimate level with the plant” (Babaian & Twigg, 2011). The authors have found this increases student awareness of plants and “increases biophilia” — student attraction towards other living things.
Sample pages of ethnobotanical journals and details about the authors’ lesson plans can be viewed in a free copy of this article now available on the website of The American Biology Teacher.
Babaian, Caryn and Paul Twigg. 2011. The Power of Plants: Introducing Ethnobotany & Biophilia into Your Biology Class. The American Biology Teacher 70(4): 217-221. Web. 6 April 2011 <http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/index.php?p=637#April_2011>
Borror, Donald J. 1971. Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms. Mayfield Publishing Company. Palo Alto, CA. Buy
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