January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Science Education Opportunities at the San Francisco Botanical Garden

Posted: Monday, December 3rd, 2012

by Annette Huddle

For over 40 years, the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society has been committed to providing opportunities for city children to explore and learn in the SF Botanical Garden, located in the heart of Golden Gate Park. We’ve grown tremendously from our earliest days when a small core of committed volunteers created guided walks for school groups and now serve more than 10,000 children a year with a variety of programs throughout the seasons. However, our emphasis has remained consistent as we strive to connect children with the natural world and take advantage of their innate curiosity to increase their engagement and understanding. In addition to direct service to children, the Youth Education Program also provides professional development opportunities for teachers, building their interest, commitment and skills in working with children outdoors, whether in our garden, in a school yard or a near-by park.

“This is better than TV!”

Our programs range from traditional once-a-year field trips to multi-visit experiences that span seasons and school years. While our programs are standards-based and content-rich, we know that in many cases the most important and fundamental impacts of our programs are on attitudes and awareness. Urban children who may be more familiar with sidewalks, telephone poles, and the World Wide Web are exposed to winding paths, towering trees and spider webs, and their reactions vary widely. Excitement and enthusiasm are common, but so are anxiety and uncertainty about the unfamiliar setting, making our programs an important tool for developing appreciation of the natural world. Once the children’s natural curiosity is ignited, their attitudes toward the world outdoors begin to shift, and learning follows naturally.

“It’s like stepping into our science book!”

The biggest strength of our programs lies in the fact that the experiences children have in the Botanical Garden literally bring science to life. Here in the garden they can observe all sorts of natural processes at work, from bees pollinating poppies in the native garden, to decomposers reducing needles to soil in our redwood grove, to rainbows appearing in the sprinklers as the children scream with delight (in our outdoor classroom, noise is not always bad!). Usually the experience correlates with and confirms concepts they have been exploring in the classroom, making real what was otherwise a list of vocabulary words. We watch comprehension dawn in the eyes of students and teachers alike as we show the progression from bud to flower to fruit, a pattern repeated over and over again in the varied specimens in our collection. Children see the concepts of predator and prey played out in real life when a hawk swoops down to snag a gopher in the meadow. Our guides keep their eyes open to the lessons the garden shares, as the natural world is not always predictable, in and of itself an important lesson for children to learn.

“Watch what happens when I shake this branch” “Hey, those seeds are spinning!” “I wonder if that flat part makes it do that?” “Maybe we can find some other ones with flat parts!” “Over here, look! Let’s try!” “It does spin!” “Let me try too!”

As science educators, we know that science is a valuable tool for exploring and making sense of the world around us. When visiting the garden, children make observations, ask questions, suggest answers, then observe some more – this is the scientific process at work. The children’s direct experiences with the world drive their questions, and our guides help them explore possible paths to find the answers they seek in the garden. If this proves beyond the scope of their visit, a guide helps children think about further possibilities to search for answers, whether through repeated observations, setting up an experiment at school, or doing research on-line or in the library. Teachers frequently report to us that questions raised during the course of their garden visit lead to rich classroom conversations and explorations, enthusiastically pursued by students and teachers alike.

“I do feel less intimidated!”

While children are the main focus of our programs, we put a lot of energy into working with teachers as well, recognizing a variety of factors that make this role essential. First, our school programs are oversubscribed every year, and we leverage our resources effectively by training teachers to bring their students to the garden on their own, outside of our structured programs. In addition, we know that connecting children with the natural world must be an ongoing activity, and teachers can learn how to make use of their schoolyards and nearby parks as outdoor classrooms so even a single visit to the Botanical Garden is embedded in a larger context of outdoor learning. We’ve also recognized that elementary teachers in particular are often ill-prepared to teach science, so we have developed programs designed to help even science–shy teachers become successful science educators. We find that when we share the natural world with teachers, they get just as excited and engaged as their students, making it easy to persuade them to introduce more science into their classrooms. To meet these needs and make the most of our resources, we collaborate actively with several other local institutions to present professional development programs for pre-K through middle school teachers, as well as for garden coordinators and parent volunteers.

“I wish I could LIVE here!”

The San Francisco Botanical Garden is a place where everyone can appreciate, enjoy, explore and learn about the natural world. We look forward to providing even more opportunities for children, teachers and families in the years to come.

For more information, please see our website, www.sfbg.org.

Annette Huddle is the Director of Youth Education at the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, the non-profit support organization for the San Francisco Botanical Garden. The mission of  SFBGS is to build communities of support for the Garden and cultivate the bond between people and plants.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

One Response

  1. Wish this could be required reading for a faculty meeting at inner city schools. Annette has done a marvelous job describing a wonderful program!

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