The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew) has launched a £2 million national science project - The Great Plant Hunt - for primary schools to mark the the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (February 12).
Sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, it’s being run through a new Plant Hunt website where schools can register to take part. Kew describes it as a recruitment campaign to find Darwin’s successor. Its director of content and learning, Professor Angela McFarlane, says: “We are facing a general skills shortage in science in the UK and nowhere is that more acute than in botany.
“Yet all life depends on plants - we eat them, wear them, live in them and most importantly they maintain the atmosphere and counteract climate change by absorbing CO2 and turning it into plant material. Moreover, there is a lot we do not know about plants. We don't even know how many types there are - about 2,000 new species are recorded each year.
“By the time they reach secondary school many children already feel science is not for them. By 16 the majority are lost to science, seeing it as dull and repetitive. The Great Plant Hunt is setting out to change some of that by offering children as young as five opportunities to engage with real science and to explore the wonder and beauty of the world of plants. People often forget how young Darwin was when he set out on the Beagle. We know him as this bearded old man but in actual fact he was a mere stripling of 22 when he started his travels.”
'Jump start a lifetime’s interest in plant-based science in every child'
The Great Plant Hunt is part of a year of celebrations for Darwin. Its aim is to “jump start a lifetime’s interest in plant-based science in every child”. By March 23,000 “treasure chests” will be en route to primary schools to support a range of experiments and activities for children aged 5-11.
They will be prompted to discover wild plants in every conceivable location as part of the UK’s “biggest ever school science project”. And the work will include “a unique experiment which will help Kew’s scientists at the world-famous Millennium Seed Bank”.
“Children are natural scientists,” says Daniel Glaser, head of special projects (public engagement) with the Wellcome Trust. “It's about the innate ability to ask your own questions, not the questions of other people. Charles Darwin himself frequently collaborated with his own children on his experiments.
“They explored the small world around Down House where Darwin lived with his family for most of his life. The landscape with its 'thinking path’ and 'tangled bank' was as important to Darwin's ideas as the far-off Galapagos Islands and the world he discovered during the voyage of the Beagle. The Great Plant Hunt gives all primary school children the opportunity to explore the science of adaptation in a range of easily accessible UK environments - just as Darwin did.”
Professor Angela McFarlane adds: “The Great Plant Hunt will introduce the nation’s children to a lifetime of caring for the natural world. Who knows, we may find the next Darwin. In 20 years, RBG Kew could be employing some of the young people we are aiming to inspire today… Too often young people only experience science as pat answers and facts they have to learn off by heart.
"That is not what scientists do, it is certainly not what Darwin did, and it doesn't have to be how school science is either. The Great Plant Hunt offers lots of opportunities to bring real science into the primary curriculum.”