Informal Learning is Growing

the garden is a dynamic museum, where specimens' conditions are painstakingly monitored and their provenance recorded.
Ellie Louson

Informal Learning at State is a new blog series by Dr. Ellie Louson that will explore the spaces for informal learning at MSU. While several definitions of informal learning exist, this series will include learning experiences that are non-curricular and accessible to the public. In other words, these are spaces for learning that admit everyone and that don’t require enrolment in courses. The first space profiled in this series is the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden.

Picturesque flowers, stately trees, and deadly poisons can all be found at the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden’s 5-acre site on MSU campus. Established in 1873 by Professor William James Beal, then-head botanical professor at the Michigan Agricultural College, this garden is one of North America’s oldest in continuous operation. It currently houses plants from over 3000 taxa ranging from local weeds to endangered Michigan plants to rare imported trees. The Beal Garden makes significant contributions to MSU’s research, teaching, and outreach, and is a great site to think about informal learning.

Much of the learning associated with this garden would fall under the umbrella of “formal” learning, especially research and teaching. Recently, plant material from this garden was determined to be involved in over $10 million in sponsored research. Thousands of K-12 and local college students tour the garden each year, as well as MSU students from horticulture, botany, forestry, art, agriculture, religious studies, natural science, pharmacology, anthropology, veterinary medicine, and landscape architecture. The Beal’s usefulness as a research collection is enhanced by rigorous policies around plant accession and record-keeping. The garden is a dynamic museum, where specimens’ conditions are painstakingly monitored and their provenance recorded. Researchers thus benefit not only from studying plant material but knowing its full history. Particularly impressive is the Beal’s collection of toxic plants, which are used to train veterinary students, poison control professionals, and ER residents.

The garden’s contributions to informal learning on campus are equally impressive. Scheduled events include “Music in the Garden” concerts which connect free performances by members of the MSU College of Music with post-concert garden tours (the final concert of 2019 will be September 5th, featuring the Modum Percussion Duo, followed by a tour by Dr. Carrington titled “Toxic Plants and Their Roles in the Insect World.”) Unusual for an academic botanical garden, each plant in the collection includes a 4-inch interpretive label describing its common and Latin names, characteristics, and historical uses. These labels are written not only for scholars but also for visitors without any botanical familiarity. Community members can volunteer to work in the garden on Wednesday mornings, and the garden’s curatorial staff, botanical technicians, and student employees regularly answer curious visitors’ questions about their own gardens.

My guide to the Beal Garden was its Curator, Collection Manager, and self-described “toxic plant guy” Dr. Peter Carrington, who has been profiled on the Hub Blog before. Dr. Carrington’s involvement with the Beal Garden began in 1973 when he started informally teaching Edible Plants as part of MSU’s “Free University.” After a stint as a science illustrator at Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Dr. Carrington returned to the area in 1977 teaching Wilderness Survival and Edible Plants to Lansing Community College students. This involved weekly visits to the garden, because “there’s no substitute for seeing the plant.” Since then, he’s been connected to the Beal Garden as a PhD student, assistant instructor in Plant Biology, and its assistant curator. 

After speaking with Dr. Carrington and observing the garden on several visits this month, I’m convinced that the Beal Garden’s contributes to informal learning through its beautiful setting that enables and enhances its presentation of knowledge.

The Beal Garden is certainly beautiful. Located along the Red Cedar River’s walking trail and with staircase entrances on Circle Drive, it gives the MSU community a chance to step away from work or course demands, relax, and breathe. The garden features gently curving lawn pathways between rows of plant collections and garden beds, shade from mature trees, and plenty of bench seating. It is a space of beauty and calm, a zone of respite in an otherwise bustling campus. The garden pond is a particularly good spot to sit, read, meditate, or get lost in thought. Dr. Carrington called the garden “a fantastically beautiful area to come and relax” which is true, yet in a way insufficient as it doesn’t distinguish the Beal Garden from other garden spaces on campus. What makes a difference are those design elements that afford visitors to explore and learn at their own pace, both in terms of the arrangement of beds by plant type and the detailed labels. The garden’s beauty attracts visitors and increases their appreciation of plants; its organization and labels allow self-directed learning. This can range from briefly scanning the name of a plant to reading about its history, relatedness to other plant types, and cultural significance to learning its Latin name. Once cultivated, visitors’ interest in plants can be further developed by taking tours, talking to a specialist, or by volunteering their time and sweat to maintain the site.

My time visiting and thinking about the Beal Garden reminded me that the natural sciences historically have combined aesthetics and education, which I explore in depth in the second half of this paper about the Planet Earth wildlife films (PDF here). In museums in particular, display and research operated synergistically. Beautiful displays weren’t an alternative to serious scientific work but were what made that work possible. It’s only more recently that we consider those to be separate functions which compete for institutions’ support and funding, as Rader and Cain explore in their book Life on Display. In addition, the immersive arrangement of specimens in museums, collections, and botanical gardens was designed to generate awe and wonder in visitors as a kind of affective, or emotional, education, as Griffiths argues in Shivers Down Your Spine. Beauty was understood to be essential not only to attract visitors but to learning itself. In this way, the Beal Garden entices us to slow down, immerse ourselves in beauty, and learn as much as we want to about its plants.

If you have any suggestions for future topics in this series, let me know on Twitter @elouson.