The ‘taxonomic illiteracy’ of Western cultures has been recognised but limited research exists on the most effective methods for teaching species identification, especially in adults. A recent House of Lords inquiry described the state of taxonomy and systematics in the UK as ‘unsatisfactory’ and a shortage of trained taxonomists, especially for less charismatic taxa, has resulted in a ‘taxonomic impediment’ to effectively monitoring and managing biodiversity. Taxonomy is one of the science areas where ‘citizen scientists’ can most meaningfully participate but there is a need for more training in identification skills and novel training methods to raise both interest and awareness.
Botany has long been a neglected aspect of biological education in curricula, textbooks and courses from school to university level. The cycle is self-perpetuating, with biology teachers neglecting botany because of its absence in their own education. In a study of A-level biology students for example, 86% could recognise only three or fewer native plant species — which is not surprising, as their teachers’ botanical identification skills were also poor. Botanical education is an integral component of ecology, and the rapid loss of plant life and its implications for mankind deserves a more prominent role in education.
In the School of Biological Sciences at Leicester we have been aware of these problems for some time and working to mitigate them. The University Botanic Garden offers the public an opportunity to study for an Advanced Certificate in Plant Identification, and students on our Biological Sciences degrees can also take a similar Plant Identification Skills module for academic credit.
A new paper in the Journal of Biological Education makes a strong case for the importance of such public and academic courses, and the contribution that ‘Citizen Scientists’ can make in this area, which does not require any expensive equipment, only knowledge and enthusiasm (Bethan Stagg & Maria Donkin (2013) Teaching botanical identification to adults: experiences of the UK participatory science project ‘Open Air Laboratories’, Journal of Biological Education, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2013.764341).
Teaching people about plants does not rival the glamour aspects of medical research, but is possibly no less important in terms of the contribution that academic education can make to society.