By Annemarie McDonald

The most effective antidote to the unease provoked by watching the news these days might be a walk on the trails of Matthaei Botanical Gardens with a group of elementary school students. Their curiosity and enthusiasm about the natural world reminds me that science can be an adventure and an exploration.
As an intern in the youth education department this summer, I’ve had many opportunities to participate in these explorations. Since the beginning of May through mid-June, 28 different schools have visited Matthaei for guided tours. That’s about 1,400 students in six weeks—and that number doesn’t even include the teachers, principals, and chaperones who accompany students on the tours. These groups represent schools from all over southeastern Michigan and greater Detroit who come to explore the plant collections and natural communities here.
Research tells us that outdoor science-based field trips have many benefits for students, especially those who have had less exposure to nature. A recent study by Emilyn Whitesell of New York University evaluating field trips’ impact on middle schoolers in New York City suggests that this type of extracurricular learning can improve standardized test scores, especially for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch (Whitesell, 2016). Informal education experiences not only increase students’ content knowledge; they can also foster pro-environmental attitudes. A 2012 study at Indiana University found that a year after a field trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, students both remembered environmental and ecological information and expressed pro-environmental values.  
For the youth who visit Matthaei, it might seem that the field trip starts when they get on the bus at school. But in reality, we hope the trip starts even before that. Teachers often plan trips to Matthaei-Nichols in conjunction with their science curricula, providing students with an opportunity to make meaningful connections between classroom and real-world learning.
Here’s how a typical field trip works: when students arrive at the gardens, Liz Glynn, Matthaei-Nichols children’s program coordinator, welcomes them and gives a brief introduction to the gardens. There are two components to most tours—the conservatory and the trails—and students spend an hour at each. The rules for both are simple: follow your docent guide and only touch the plants your guide says you can touch (it’s hard to get excited about nature when you have a rash from poison ivy).
Students use a magnifying glass 
to look at the details of veins in a leaf. 

In the classroom, students compare the textures
of two different stems.

During a walk on the trails,
a student examines a monarch
caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.  

Then half of the groups head out to the trails while the other half go inside to explore the conservatory. There’s a lot to see, touch, and discover in both places. On the trails we might look for evidence of animal activity, learn to identify a few native trees, or even sneak up on a frog. In the conservatory students are often excited to learn that chocolate really does grow on trees, awed by the insectivorous bog plants, and disgusted by the smell of the starfish flower. The key to these field trips, however, isn’t what the students see, but how they see it. And that’s all up to the guides. Docent guides here at Matthaei are interested in education, care about the environment, and have extensive ecological knowledge to share with youth—and they do it all as volunteers!
Chocolate (at least the raw material for it)
really does grow on trees, as these students
discovered on a field trip to Matthaei
Botanical Gardens.

But even with all this expertise, not all field trips go to plan. A few weeks ago, a group of second graders came on an overcast day; the forecast threatened rain within the hour. The teachers chose to have the students participate in an indoor activity rather than get wet and muddy trying to navigate the trails. You might think this would put a damper on the whole trip, but with some help from the leftover plant-sale plants, students still had a hands-on plant-science experience. They used magnifying glasses to examine the plant parts they had learned about in school, removed soil to expose root hairs, pulled apart stems to reveal the vascular tissues inside, and explored the network of veins in a leaf. Even without going outside, there are opportunities here at Matthaei to make meaningful connections with the natural world and build upon classroom learning. Each field trip is a unique opportunity to grow students’ understanding of and appreciation for the natural world, and I hope they leave here with more questions than they came with—it’s a good reason to come back.

Annemarie McDonald is a master’s student in the conservation ecology track at the University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability. Her internship in the Youth Education department was made possible by a gift from Ian and Sally Bund to provide continued support of current and future nature-based educational programming at Matthaei Nichols.