Being a botanist: Q&A with students from South Wellington Intermediate School

Last week I was invited to give a talk at my son’s class at South Wellington Intermediate School (SWIS) about what it is like to be a botanist at Te Papa. To help me prepare, the students wrote down questions they had about botany or being a botanist. Their questions got me thinking about how important it is that children not only learn about science but also about scientists. In other words, that they have the opportunity to interact with actual scientists who can answer their questions and maybe even inspire the next generation of botanists, mathematicians and chemists.

Burning questions for a botanist: Handwritten questions submitted by Room 1 year 7 & 8 students from South Wellington Intermediate School, on pink sticky notes! Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

Burning questions for a botanist: Handwritten questions submitted by Room 1 year 7 & 8 students from South Wellington Intermediate School, on pink sticky notes! Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

“What is it like being a scientist?”

"What is it like being a scientist?" and "Do you study plants which aren't native?" --Polly & Sarah. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa

“What is it like being a scientist?” and “Do you study plants which aren’t native?” –Polly & Sarah. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa

The students’ questions showed they were very curious about the logistics of being a scientist: what days and how many hours I worked (usually Monday to Friday, normal working hours), whether I work independently or as part of a team (both), what the best part about my job is (definitely the field work!), and how much study was required (a long time: an additional 12 years after high school!). I use my training and skills to do many different things in my job at Te Papa. I hope I showed the kids that being a scientist is challenging yet fun and satisfying.

Several scientists do research at Te Papa, some of whom talk about their research and what it’s like to be a scientist in this short video:

 “Why do native plants interest you?”

"What do you like about working at Te Papa? Why do native New Zealand plants interest you?" --Hazel. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

“What do you like about working at Te Papa? Why do native New Zealand plants interest you?” –Hazel. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

Great questions! New Zealand’s plants are special, many are found here and nowhere else, and each one is amazing in its own right (check it out: one of our rarest plants even made the evening news). However there are still many species that have not been described or even discovered yet. I enjoy researching native plants because I know my findings and discoveries increase our understanding of New Zealand’s biodiversity.

My research also impacts additional scientific research, broader biosecurity and climate change issues, and conservation planning. What I like about working at Te Papa is that I get to pursue this passion alongside so many interesting colleagues who study Pasifika, Art, Maori, History and Biology. It is a privilege to work in New Zealand’s national museum, surrounded by so many national treasures, some of which (the plant collections) are the focus of my research.

“What tools do you use?”

"1. How many hours do you work? 2. What tools do you use to find info about the plants?" --Caroline. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

“1. How many hours do you work? 2. What tools do you use to find info about the plants?” –Caroline. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

At my talk, I passed around to the students some of the tools I use: tweezers, silica gel, digital calipers, a plant press, herbarium specimens, a hand lens. I told them how I use a digital calipers and microscope to gather morphological data on the plants I study, showed them how to press a plant specimen in the plant press, and showed photos of the different laboratory equipment we use. Data gathered using these tools has allowed me to describe two new species and one new subspecies of plants so far. In fact, Te Papa scientists have been describing new species for 150 years!

Budding botanists

Then it was time for the students to give botany a go. They used microscopes, magnifying glasses and rulers to look at native plant herbarium specimens.

A book of herbarium specimens of native New Zealand plants, made by Te Papa staff specifically for this type of educational outreach activity. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

A book of herbarium specimens of native New Zealand plants, made by Te Papa staff specifically for this type of educational outreach activity. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

And it was my turn to ask the questions! Does the plant have simple or compound leaves? Does the specimen have fruits or flowers? Can you identify the different parts of the flower?

Detail of a specimen of kowhai, with pinnately compound leaves, large yellow flowers, and long legume fruits. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

Detail of a specimen of kowhai, with pinnately compound leaves, large yellow flowers, and long legume fruits. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

Detail of a specimen of lemonwood, with simple, entire leaves, and flowers and fruits in umbels. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

Detail of a specimen of lemonwood, with simple, entire leaves, and flowers and fruits in umbels. Photo by Heidi Meudt © Te Papa.

The students measured and observed the plants, and used some newly-acquired botanical terminology to describe them. They also made some detailed botanical illustrations.

SWIS student Annabelle working on her botanical illustration. Photo by Vanessa Te Huia © The Board of SWIS.

SWIS student Annabelle working on her botanical illustration. Photo by Vanessa Te Huia © The Board of SWIS.

SWIS student Stazsia working on her botanical illustration. Photo by Vanessa Te Huia © The Board of SWIS.

SWIS student Stazsia working on her botanical illustration. Photo by Vanessa Te Huia © The Board of SWIS.

Tēnā koutou Whaea Vanessa, SWIS, and the budding botanists of Room 1 for inviting me.

After reading this blog, do you have questions about being a botanist or a scientist? Ask them below!

3 Responses

  1. Rohrerbot

    What’s their version of Poison Ivy? 🙂

    Reply
  2. Heidi Meudt

    Hi Adele, I think any age is a great age to learn about botany! 🙂 But I agree with you that these intermediate students were particularly interested and keen to give it a go. Because they were older than preschool or primary school students, were able to go beyond the basics, delving a bit more into some technical terminology certain botany and science topics.

    Reply
  3. Adele Pentony-Graham

    I would say that is the best age for pupils to learn about plants..

    Reply

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