Research Summary

Climate change education: quantitatively assessing the impact of a botanical garden as an informal learning environment

Using Botanical Gardens to Teach about Climate Change

Environmental Education Research

Worldwide, botanical gardens attract nearly 200 million visitors every year. These visitors can participate in a range of experiences, from free-choice visits to more structured field trips. Yet, the effectiveness of these learning environments for outcomes related to knowledge gain has not been widely evaluated. In addition, the use of botanical gardens as a context for teaching about climate change is a relatively new idea, and one that is promising.

This paper’s authors conducted a study focused on short- and long-term knowledge gain among high school students after participating in a one-day climate change lesson at a botanical garden. The study took place at a botanical garden in Bayreuth, Germany. The participants were 108 high school students from rural environments who attended the program as part of a compulsory annual field trip day. The daylong environmental education lesson was designed to provide students with three types of knowledge about climate change: system knowledge, action-related knowledge, and effectiveness knowledge. System knowledge comprises the basic knowledge of a certain topic (for example, how greenhouse gases contribute to climate change); action-related knowledge refers to actions or behaviors a person can take (such as saving energy); and effectiveness knowledge is what helps people assess how effective an action or behavior might be (for example, taking a bus instead of driving saves X amount of energy). In addition, the lesson was designed to be able to fit into the school curriculum and complement the content being taught in the classroom, namely the ecology and environmental topics being taught in biology class, and the global climate change unit being taught in geography.

The one-day intervention was comprised of two parts: the first provided background information about the issue of climate change through activities at different workstations; the second consisted of more practical activities around the garden using a different set of workstations. This workstation model was chosen because it provided the students with an opportunity to interact with their peers and educators. It also allowed students to work independently and at their own pace, using self-instructional materials. The students were divided into groups of three to four students to rotate through the workstations together.

The first unit was comprised of nine workstations, eight of which were obligatory and one of which was optional (the knowledge from this workstation was not included in the survey). The workstations were all set up in the garden’s seminar room. Each workstation covered a different theoretical topic related to climate change, such as climate changes in the history of the Earth based on ice cores, contribution of food production and transportation to greenhouse gas emissions, and others.

The second unit provided students with more hands-on, practical experience in the garden. Each student received an “explorer booklet” and a map indicating the locations of the six workstations around the garden. Each workstation focused on a particular plant species and was located where that species was growing in the garden. The students had to find the site on the map, and then use the educational material and observations of the plant to solve tasks. The tasks concerned the many consequences of global climate change on plant species and how these, in turn, affect ecosystems and humans. One of the workstations, for example, was called Playing with Fire. It dealt with Australian fire ecosystems as an example of how arid ecosystems will be affected by climate change. The plants used at this station were two species that live in fire ecosystems.

The effectiveness of both of the intervention units on knowledge gain was evaluated using a multiple-choice pre-test administered one week before the intervention, a post-test administered immediately after (short-term post-test), and a longer-term post-test administered four to six weeks after the intervention. A control group was also asked to take the three tests without participating in the intervention.

Results indicated that the knowledge gain from the intervention was significant immediately after the intervention, and this gain persisted four to six weeks later. No significant effects were found in the control group. The researchers attributed the success of this intervention to the student-centered approach that they used, which allowed students to interact with their peers throughout the lesson.

The Bottom Line

Botanical gardens, which draw nearly 200 million visitors worldwide annually, may be important and effective sites for environmental and climate change education, particularly when paired with formal education. In these settings, education is likely to be more effective and have a lasting impact when it is hands-on and collaborative. One way to accomplish this is by using the workstation model, where different tasks are organized at locations around the garden or classroom. This model allows students to interact with each other and the teacher, and it also provides an engaging way to gain theoretical grounding and learn practical knowledge.