In the introduction to her research paper, Botanical Knowledge of a Group of South Carolina Elementary School Students, Chandra L. Cooper shares a quote by anthropologist Eugene S. Hunn in which he pronounces the extent of Americans ignorance of the natural environment.
His comment begs the questions: How ignorant are they? Can this be reversed?
Cooper addressed these questions, in part, by studying the botanical knowledge of a small group of elementary school children. To determine how much the students knew about plants and to determine if this knowledge could be improved through informal learning experiences, Cooper created a way to quantify the students’ prior botanical knowledge and created a three-month program in informal botany education whose aim was to improve students’ knowledge of plants.
Cooper’s research focused on how well a group of elementary school students could identify trees, flowers, weeds/wild plants, garden crops, vines, shrubs/bushes, water plants, house plants, grasses and “other plants” (Cooper, 2008), plants not included in the previous categories.
From December 2006 through May 2007, Cooper (2008) worked with children enrolled in a small elementary school located in rural South Carolina. The sample population (n=11) consisted of eight males and three females, age 9-12 years. Of the eleven students, data for ten were analyzed.
Cooper (2008) administered a three-part pre-assessment survey to determine students’ prior experiences with nature, their ability to name plants and to sort them into categories, and their ability to identify 60 species of plants shown in a slide show. For the post-assessment survey, students repeated the same tasks. They also responded to questions in a verbal interview conducted by Cooper.
The pre-assessment inquiries revealed that nine of the students had a vegetable or flower garden at home and that eight of them had experience performing yard work (Cooper, 2008). Pre-assessment surveys also revealed the children preferred outdoor activities over indoor activities, most had participated in recycling practices in their home, and that the students were able to identify at least two uses of plants (Cooper, 2008). When asked to list plants in the 10 categories outlined above, students listed an average of 10 trees, 6 flowers, 9 garden crops, and 3 weeds; their lists for plants in the remaining categories were very short, containing 1-2 items each (Cooper, 2008). When asked to identify plants in a slide show containing 60 species of plants (students were allowed to view the slide show at their own pace), students could on average identify 33% of the plants in the slide show, with all of them correctly identifying cotton, potato, rose, strawberry and bamboo (Cooper, 2008). Students could identify garden crop plants 70% of the time, multiple-use plants 60% of the time and wild plants 18% of the time (Cooper, 2008).
Following the pre-assessment surveys, students attended a three-month after-school program in which they participated in hands-on activities about plants and studies about plants in their local area (Cooper, 2008). Upon completing the program, students could list significantly more garden crop plants than they did in the pre-assessment survey (Cooper, 2008). They also listed significantly fewer shrubs/bushes, a development Cooper (2008) says can be explained by the students’ ability to better categorize plants as a result of their participation in the after-school program (see Cooper’s paper for a detailed review of student responses).
Post-assessment surveys also indicate this small group of elementary school students could identify correctly 55% of the plants in the slide show — up from 33% (Cooper, 2008). When analyzing the average number of correct responses made by students, Cooper (2008) found that students could identify correctly 91% of garden crop plants (up from 70%), 33% of ornamental plants (up from 15%), 42% of wild plants (up from 18%), and 80% of multiple-use plants (up from 60%).
The three-month program implemented by Cooper lead to an increased interest in plants and increased student ability to identify correctly various categories of plants. Student interest in plants was assessed during the post-assessment interviews. Enhanced student interest in plants was confirmed by the types of comments students made during the interview. Comments such as, “There are a lot more plants in the environment than I think, and I’ve just got to look closer” (Cooper, 2008).
Cooper’s results indicate that a program in informal botany education can lead to increased knowledge about plants and to an enhanced interest in the plant world.
Read more student comments about plants.
Download a copy of Cooper’s article by clicking on the link below. The article is free to download. The journal Ethnobotany Research and Applications is published online. Its contents are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Cooper, Chanda L. 2008. Botanical knowledge of a group of South Carolina elementary school students. Ethnobotany Research and Applications. 6: 121-127. Web. <http://lib-ojs3.lib.sfu.ca:8114/index.php/era/article/view/166>
[accessed 28 September 2012]
Studies of Botanical Knowledge
In her introduction, Cooper (2008) discusses how the botanical knowledge of children in indigenous societies is greater than that of children in the US, in the United Kingdom, and in Switzerland. She cites studies reviewed previously in this column. Click on the links to these studies to learn more.