During the 2014-2015 school year one in five Birmingham City School students participated in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Discovery Program.
“These are hands-on activities that bring the kids out to the gardens,” said BBG CEO Frederick R. Spicer Jr.
Spicer and the BBG collectively — visitors and supporters of any kind, including the volunteer docents who lead field trips and tours and represent just one part of the BBG’s 1,000 programs — want the students to not only know about, but also feel welcome, in the gardens.
“[A field trip] introduces them to something wonderful in their city that many of them have not had access to or don’t know that they have access to; don’t know where it is, what it is, if they’re welcome,” Spicer said. “That’s a really important thing to communicate to everyone equally.”
The gardens served all Birmingham-area schools, a total of 9,400 students from 121 schools in 25 districts, through field trips alone last school year.
Teachers from all districts have different field trip options from which to choose, ranging from an Alabama Woodlands Tour and pollination-focused field trips to one of autumn’s most popular according to Spicer: the George Washington Carver (GWC) Field Trip.
“Here’s a man who changed not only agriculture but industry on a global scale,” said Spicer of Carver.
Carver was born in a slave in 1860 Diamond Grove, Missouri, to parents who were bought for $700. His 10 brothers and sisters died prematurely. Carver had to walk 10 miles to the nearest public school that would admit him because he was black. He graduated from high school in Kansas, applied to and was accepted to college in the 1880s, only to travel there and be rejected because of his race.
Carver hand plowed 17 acres of homesteaded farmland before attending two colleges in Iowa, Simpson College and Iowa State Agricultural College. He was Iowa State’s first black student. Later he would become its first black faculty member.
In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to head the agriculture department at Tuskegee Institute, which had been founded 15 years earlier. By 1941, his genius was known. That year, Time magazine called him a “Black Leonardo”:
Patriarch George Washington Carver, who hobbles benignly about Tuskegee’s campus, is an artist. But he is better known as the greatest Negro scientist alive, the man who pioneered new uses for Southern agricultural products, developed 285 new uses for the peanut, got 118 products, including vinegar, molasses and shoe blacking, from the South’s surplus sweet potatoes. In his laboratory he and his assistants also make paints and dyes from the red Alabama clay, the oil of the Alabama peanut, with which he paints the natural phenomena he sees around him: birds, fruit, flowers.
Learning about Carver is an inseparable part of the BBG experience, at least to Spicer and BBG Education Program Coordinator Ellen Hardy.
“The students learn about his background, his beginnings and all of the things he accomplished throughout his life,” Hardy said.
For a group of Bessemer third graders sitting on benches in the gardens on a recent Thursday, the learning adventure begins with a docent reading aloud David A. Adler’s A Picture Book of George Washington Carver.
Ernest Moorer, grandfather to Demarus Moorer, who is sitting on a bench nearby, said this is his first field trip to chaperone.
” ‘Granddad, you going?’ ” Moorer said Demarus asked him. “I said, ‘Of course I’m going.’ He knows the way I keep my yard.”
The elder Moorer, who had planted spinach and kale in his own garden the week before this visit to the gardens, did not grow up with the same field trip opportunities. “Steel mill,” he said and laughed. “We went to U.S. Steel.”
After thinking a moment Moorer added softly, “And the symphony. We had music.”
Connecting to a role model
Neither the volunteer docent nor the picture book mentioned Carver’s artistic achievements, neither his study of music nor the botany drawings that led to his formal study of agriculture.
Walking from the benches to the GWC Garden, third grader Sammrra Harris shared what she knew about Carver prior to the field trip: “In second grade I learned he was an inventor.”
When asked if she had learned anything else now, still early in the field trip, Harris thought a moment before answering, “And I just learned something new: Cotton makes clothes!”
While Sammrra listed only one newly learned thing, the field trip plants seeds that may pique curiosity later in their educational careers when they come across more information — or seek it out — on Carver’s life.
As Spicer said, “The guy’s got a really compelling story. He did work that really is meaningful.” To Spicer, Carver is a role model.
Often greeting the groups of arriving second, third and fourth graders, Spicer asks for a hand count: How many of them want to be scientists?
“I get a lot of kids who raise their hands,” Spicer said — on this day at least half of the class of 20-25 raise their hands — “but the sad truth is that a lot of children of color don’t select or don’t move into professions that are science-, technology-, engineering- and math-based.”
For Spicer, professions in those fields represent the future economy of America. “Those kids can’t get left behind because they’re too important,” he said.
Spicer hopes the Discovery Field Trip Program, GWC Garden and its namesake student adventure will positively affect those numbers.
“There’s this great thing that happens [on these field trips] with role models for children in science who maybe don’t think they have any role models,” Spicer said.
Before the field trip, most students knew Carver as a “famous Alabamian,” and something about his association with Tuskegee, the private, historically black Alabama university founded in 1881 and still operating today.
The STEM-focused discussion of Carver at the gardens are curriculum-based and line up with the Alabama public school system, and emphasize some of the many roles that people in STEM have, according to Spicer.
“We want to turn kids onto science while they’re young and they understand what all these things are about before they get dissuaded,” Spicer said.
He points to a success story and doctoral candidate at Tennessee State University, Steven Kennedy. Kennedy, a native Birminghamian and graduate of Birmingham City Schools and Miles College, is pursuing his doctoral degree in agricultural and environmental science.
After Kennedy earned a bachelor’s degree in biology his internship last summer at the Gardens “switched [his] career track,” Kennedy said. Without the BBG internship program, “I can’t imagine where I’d be,” he said. “It’s a very, very strong foundation.”
One handwritten thank-you note shows that connecting Carver to modern students is having an effect. “Thank you for helping us learn about George Washington Carver,” the student writes. “My favorite part was when we got to look at all the things that we could make out of peanuts and peanut oil.”
Digging and Rotating
Looking and touching, experiencing, reinforces the learning. “Everybody knows what a peanut is,” Spicer said, but how many know the peanut is the seed part of the plant that blooms its yellow flower above ground, is pollinated by bees, then shoots a peg out underground to burrow and mature.
“I mean, that’s amazing,” Spicer said of the burrowing process. “It’s not like a potato, not a part of the root of the plant.”
The burrowing occurs for a simple reason: “If you’re the peanut, everything wants to eat you,” Spicer said. “Having your seeds underground is a great way to protect them from the things that want to eat you so it’s a great adaptation.”
The developing minds constantly adapting to their surroundings are eager to harvest the seeds on their BBG student adventures. “The students actually get to become farmers,” Hardy said, identifying the yellow flowers above ground that point to where the peanuts are buried like hidden treasure and the garden’s sweet potatoes a few meters away.
The digging shows, not only tells, one major lesson of the GWC Field Trip Program from Carver’s revolutionary work: Crop rotation. Though Southern farmers did not cotton to it right away, Carver pioneered and spent much time teaching how crop rotation could rejuvenate soil depleted by the practice of planting just one kind of plant in a single area, common in the Reconstruction Era.
The students see the importance of nitrogen when digging, are told about crop rotation through the picture book and before digging also play a “nitrogen game” to drive the point home.
“They love to play the game,” Hardy said. “They would never understand crop rotation if we were just telling them about it.” In order to play the game to get to become the peanut, Hardy explained, they must understand how peanuts help put nitrogen back into the soil.
She said that for many of the students, “This is their first field trip experience; for many this is their first opportunity to be in an outdoor environment learning about plants and the environment.”
It speaks to a larger issue, according to Hardy.
Where food comes from
“I think it’s a deeper understanding, an appreciation, for where our food comes from, for how it’s grown and where it’s grown, as they enjoy all these products they’re learning about — from peanuts to sweet potatoes to the fibers their clothes are made of — and that this goes well beyond the stores that they visit,” Hardy said. “Oftentimes they don’t think about what’s beyond the store; where did this come from?”
Spicer agreed. “They do get that connectivity with food [through the program], where it comes from and where it goes,” he said.
“People have forgotten what my grandmother knew, which was that you ate organic food because there wasn’t such a thing as inorganic food,” Spicer said. “And you ate things that grew seasonally because you couldn’t walk into a supermarket in October and buy strawberries because strawberries don’t grow in October. They’re a summer fruit. In October, you’re eating something else.”
Spicer explains how globalization changed that, making unnecessary the seasonal link between farmer and store when strawberries can be flown in from another farm in another country where it’s early summer. “Most of the food that you ate last week came from farther away than you went on your last vacation,” he said.
It’s not “bad” or “good” either way, Spicer said. “Part of that is great because I like Italian wine, and part of that is also scary because we’ve lost the connection with what our food really is and the connection to the land, to the earth.”
The gardens offer “field trips that speak to pollination and how this very important thing that happens all over the planet is really why we have food to eat,” Spicer said. “It’s a very simple thing,” like the relationship between peanuts, nitrogen and crop rotation. “We strive with these real specific messages to also give broader messages about food — that it doesn’t come from a bag, that it doesn’t come from a store.”
The Discovery Field Trip Program itself would not grow without the volunteer docents, who sign up for a year-long commitment two mornings a week. “We have volunteers from so many different backgrounds, who just want to give back and share their time and learn something too,” Hardy said.
In the past school year, 97 percent of the 16,000 children who participated in a BBG program did so at absolutely no cost to their families.
That includes the Library at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, the only public library of its kind in the Southeast with over 8,000 items in the collection dedicated to horticulture and environmental science available to anyone who gets a library card there.
Spicer says that besides the volunteers, the gardens thrive because of donations from individuals, corporations, foundations and the ongoing partnership with the city of Birmingham. “The city owns this facility and assists us in innumerable ways on a daily basis in helping to deliver these great programs,” he said.
The BBG “is a lot of things to a lot of people,” Spicer said, noting that many come for weddings, to take Christmas pictures or for other photo opportunities. But many miss what else there is to do in the gardens.
Case in point: Chaperone Tomeka Thomas, on the GWC field trip with her daughter Morgan, said, “I’ve been to Botanical Gardens before, but I didn’t know about this.”
Spicer would like more people to know about the BBG’s educational mission, which connects learners with critical information. “At the root of all of our food are plants. That’s why the gardens are here. That’s why plants are important: They’re more important for life on the planet [than animals] and more important for human nutrition.”
With the George Washington Carver Field Trip, it’s one docent, chaperone, teacher, student, peanut; one seed at a time. What roots take hold, what flora blossom, only coming seasons will show.