‘Why don’t we have this kind of tree in Missouri?’ a young visitor wonders, after discovering that biodiversity is greater in the tropics.
‘How can “dirt and gravel” purify water?’ another ponders as she stares at a terrarium ‘ecosystem’.
‘I told you! It’s the people who are having all those babies who are destroying our environment,’ a third exclaims after watching a counter tick off increases in population and dropping acreage of rain forest.
Garden staff wince as they overhear statements like these. As educators, we are pleased that visitors are thinking. At the same time we are chagrined to hear their erroneous conclusions.
Visitors’ questions often require complex answers. The very best exhibit can only provide so much information. And the lesson the visitor takes home may not be the one intended.
As botanical gardens assume a greater role in helping the public make sense of global environmental change, they are increasingly challenged to help their visitors understand complex conservation issues. While their plantings can present biodiversity, and their collections may exhibit fascinating adaptations, plants cannot speak for themselves. How can we engage visitors, and answer their questions, while using the power of these collections?
Eco-Cart demonstrations at Missouri Botanical Garden successfully address this challenge. These demonstrations use several approaches that are known to have great power in stimulating learning:
- live presenters talk with visitors
- visitors participate in the presentations
- the content of each presentation is linked back to visitors’ daily lives
- visitors leave with a memento of their contact.