Darwin's Science in Schools

The Wellcome Trust's Darwin initiatives see the science of Darwin taken into schools. Meera went along for the launch to chat with Sir David...
08 March 2009

Interview with 

Angela MacFarlane, Kew Gardens; Sir David Attenborough


Meera - 2009 is Darwin year and it's 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin. This week I'm at St Jude's primary school in Herne Hill, London for the launch of the Wellcome Trust's Darwin initiatives.  These include resources such as the Tree of Life: a short film exploring evolution on Earth.  Today sees the launch of the great plant hunt where a treasure chest filled with activities has just been delivered by Sir David Attenborough to the kids here at St Jude's to help them explore nature and science the way Darwin did.  With me now is Angela MacFarlane, Director of Content and Learning at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who helped create this amazing treasure chests. Angela, tell me more about the great plant hunt.

Angela - The great plant hunt is a project to get every single primary school child in the country involved in some real outdoor hands-on science, following the steps of Darwin.

Portrait of Charles DarwinMeera - What kind of things are inside the chest?

Angela - There's a millennium seed bank, mini seed bank which is what our scientists use to preserve seed and to keep the seed viable over many years.  They've got a plant press, they've got magnifiers, they've got seeds, a story book and then on the website they've got a space where they can share photographs of the work they've done with every other school in the country.

Meera - How can things contained in this kit help them understand more about Darwin's principle?

Angela - All of the activities start off with a thinking walk.  The methods that Darwin used were actually pretty straight forward. He went out and made good observations.  He made records.  He made collections.  The key thing is he did a lot of very high quality thinking.  What we want to do is get the children thinking about what they're seeing.  If they live in an inner city area and they can't get out into the countryside they can actually do a thinking walk just in the playground, looking at the things that are growing on the walls, coming up through the concrete.  They start off by looking at what's growing around them, making collections, doing experiments and their thinking develops from that point onwards.

Meera - Why do you think it's important for children to know more and understand more about Darwin's theories and his science?

Angela - Well the thing about Darwin's science is it's actually very accessible.  It's a really good introduction to science generally, collecting evidence, doing experiments.  We need them to understand the importance of science and scientists to the everyday world around them.  For example, the fact that we don't know all there is to know about the natural world is a really important message.

Canadian MapleMeera - Angela MacFarlane from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.  It looks like we're about to set off on one of these thinking walks now with the kids to explore the kid's nature garden.  We've been wondering around the nature garden looking out for plant and, in particular, weeds to get them thinking about how they manage to grow in unusual places.  With me are some members of the year two class in St Jude's.  What have we all discovered about weeds today?

First Pupil - They grow in different places like in the walls and the trees and soil and even stones.

Second Pupil - I'm wondering, how do they come through if there's loads of stones all over the place?

Third Pupil - The seeds of one of the flowers must have made a weed grow through one of the stones.

Meera - What about Charles Darwin? Do you know much about him yet?

First Pupil - He went on the HMS Beagle and discovered al sorts of things.

Second Pupil - Well I know that he was born February 12th. He died when he was 200.

Third Pupil  - He was idle at school, he wrote lots of pages about worms and he played with dogs. He was born 200 years ago.

Meera - He was indeed, born 200 years ago, rather than living for 200 years!  Thanks to the Year 2s at St Jude's primary school.  The great plant hunt was kicked off here today by Sir David Attenborough who's been walking around with the kids, exploring the garden himself.  I caught up with him earlier to talk about why Darwin's theories have been so important to science today.

David - Well, it is the unifying theory of the life sciences and it continually throws up new problems and produces and suggests new answer.  A precise detailed mechanism whereby variation can arise and why different varieties and different variations become selected.  There's a lot of work to be done on that.  It also threw up a number of problems.  If it was true there are a number of difficulties which scientists at the time very properly said:  'We don't understand that. How could that be if Darwin was right?'  In the hundred and fifty years since publication of the Origin of the Species every one of those major problems by scientists sometimes working in a quite different field.  Suddenly you'll discover that they have found something which has validated Darwin's theory.

Page from Dawins notebooks showing an evolutionary treeMeera - So one project you've been working on has been the tree of life project.  What is this and how does it represent Darwin's thoughts?

David - Well, when Darwin in one of his early notebooks was speculating about how life might have developed he drew a tree.  It looks like a trunk and then it branches into different branches and the branches then branch into small branches and so on.  That was the way he thought life could develop.  Everything that we've known since then has proved that is indeed the way that the tree of life has developed.  In recent years we've discovered DNA.  Darwin didn't know anything about DNA but DNA enables you to establish the relationships of and organism.  Just as in our law courts DNA is used, DNA fingerprinting, to establish the paternity of a child.  Now that kind of DNA fingerprinting can also establish the relationship between, say, a lion or a tiger or a chimpanzee and a gorilla and a man.  An enormous amount of work has been done by DNA scientists now so that we can draw the diagram which is the tree of life with complete confidence.


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