Research Summary

Beauty in the foreground, science behind the scenes: families’ views of science learning in a botanic garden

How botanic gardens can contribute to science learning for families

Environmental Education Research

Families can learn from each other about science, so it is important to understand what families consider as learning opportunities. Families may learn through the social constructivist lens, meaning that learning depends on how participants interact with and interpret their environment. Previous research considers social constructivist learning more effective than the transmission mode, in which an instructor teaches information to passive learners. While research exists on how families experience museums as settings for learning, no studies have considered how families learn from botanic gardens. Botanic gardens require less interpretation than museums and instead focus on places of beauty. However, research suggests that beauty can enhance scientific understanding. This study explored how families perceived a botanic garden as a setting for science learning.

This study took place in the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London, U.K. The Kew Gardens are one of the largest botanic gardens in the world. The study participants were 24 families (a total of 76 participants) who regularly visited Kew Gardens and replied to an advertisement in the Kew Gardens newsletter. The 44 child participants had an average age of just under 7 years. Importantly, the child participants had not visited Kew Gardens with their schools, and the 32 parents in the study did not have a professional science background. The researcher conducted interviews at Kew Gardens with all 24 families. Of those, 13 families (17 parents and 22 children) participated in accompanied visits to Kew Gardens, during which the researcher followed the families to document and observe without mediating the visits. Finally, 8 of those 13 families (10 parents and 15 children) were asked to return for a second visit. These families were told use a specific trail, developed as part of a Christmas festival at Kew Gardens, which included interactive questions and information about the plants. The data from recordings and notes were analyzed for themes.

Overall findings indicated that visiting Kew Gardens can promote science learning among participant families. Specifically, the researcher emphasized the importance of engaging interpretive plaques when helping participant families learn about science, and that the appreciation of beauty can instigate learning.

The data indicated that during the first visit, families focused on Kew Garden’s beauty but found the science inaccessible. Interviewees stated that they were aware that scientific research was done at Kew but that it was not relevant to them. Two-thirds of participant families considered science to be difficult, complicated, and theoretical, and many families stated that their normal, daily conversations did not include scientific learning. Results from the accompanied visits showed that the average duration of these unmediated visits was 205 minutes and that there was limited interpretation by families. Many families perceived the plants’ taxonomic plaque as information solely for experts, since the plaques only included the plants’ Latin name.

In comparison to the first visit, the data from the second visit—which included walking along the interactive trail—demonstrated an increase in connections made between science and the participants’ daily lives. The average duration of these visits was 68 minutes. During the post-visit interviews, participant families reported using facts and questions from signs on the trail to start conversations that focused on science based on their personal interests and experiences, and generated an interest in the plants that was deeper than just beauty. For example, one sign described that a Christmas tree is usually an evergreen conifer and then included a question about why trees may be called evergreens. In addition, the trail included questions and answers based on the 12 Days of Christmas, so the first stop (“partridge in a pear tree”) asked to which plant family pear trees belong.

After using the trail, participants reported feeling more comfortable with connecting science to their experience and noted that walking on the trail had encouraged them to learn from the taxonomic plaques. For example, a family identified a beautiful tree on the trail as a Christmas tree, and then read the plaque to understand that it was a Norwegian spruce. The trail cards both explained the names on the taxonomic plaque and provided other facts.

This study was small and took place at a single botanic garden in the U.K., thus results may vary at other gardens or in different countries. This study included people familiar with Kew Gardens, and results could be different for people who do not visit gardens often or are not interested in them. Additionally, not all families visited twice and used the trail, and families self-selected to participate in interviews and observations. A study with more participants and a different recruitment method may have different results.

The author recommends that botanic gardens market themselves as both beautiful and scientific institutions and refer to visitors as science learners. Gardens can do more to highlight scientific research and connect that science to visitor’s personal lives and experiences. The author suggests that botanic gardens develop engaging methods of interpretation, such as the use of a trail celebrating a season or holiday, as in this study.

The Bottom Line

This study took place in Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London, U.K., and explored how 24 families perceived botanic gardens as a place to learn about science. After a first visit, participant families initially reported feeling that science was difficult and inaccessible. However, after roughly half of participant families returned and walked on an interactive Christmas trail, they reported discussing science information presented on plaques. The researcher suggests that EE practitioners involved with botanic gardens promote them as scientific institutions and centers for learning, as well as a place to enjoy beauty. Additionally, botanic gardens should maximize visitor engagement in scientific learning by increasing opportunities for visitors to interpret their environment.