The Academic Decline: How to Train the Next Generation of Botanists

The number of undergraduate degrees earned in botany has decreased by 50 percent since the late 1980s.

Becky Tonietto, a Ph.D. student in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern University, studies the decline of native bee species, such as bumble bees.
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Planting Science, a program partially funded by the National Science Foundation, and led by the Botanical Society of America, links teachers and students to professional botanists.

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"It's our aim that by bringing botanical experience and botanical expertise to teachers, and exposing kids to plants early on, that will increase the interest in this ability," says Pamela Diggle, president of the BSA.

One of the effects of a shortage of training in any kind of plant biology, Diggle says, is that elementary and middle school biology teachers don't feel confident in teaching students about plants in an interesting way.

"We as botanists need to be very creative about how we bring an interest in plants down to the K-12 level," Diggle says.

The Chicago Botanic Garden also provides intensive summer and school-year programs for students in the Chicago public school systems. Students take botany and plant biology classes, and get hands-on training from professional botanists, but also receive mentoring and training on how to apply to college.

"Many of these students are coming from families that have never gone to university before. That's a very scary thing for families who don't know how to apply, what's involved and what it's like to go to a university," Mueller says.

Mueller says igniting an interest in students can help preserve the field in the same way a lack of interest has contributed to its demise. "It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy," Mueller says. "You can't get excited about something if you don't even know it exists."

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