UW’s Rocky Mountain Herbarium Launches K-12 Education Initiative

Volunteer Madison Dale, of Laramie, shows the 1 millionth plant specimen – a Wyoming Indian paintbrush – mounted at UW’s Rocky Mountain Herbarium in 2020. Phenomenon-based lessons that use the resources of the world-class herbarium are now available to K-12 educators. and students in Wyoming. (UW Photo)

The Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University of Wyoming has long welcomed students of all ages into its hallowed halls. Now, the herbarium’s leaders are working to make it accessible to teachers and students in classrooms across the state who cannot travel to UW’s main campus.

Matt Bisk, a graduate student from Mount Laurel, NJ, in UW’s Science and Math Teaching Center and graduate assistant to the UW Biodiversity Institute, created phenomenon-based lessons that use the resources of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium. Explicit connections to Wyoming science standards are provided for all grade levels; however, most of the lessons may be most appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students. Phenomenon-based learning requires students to explore and explain an observable phenomenon.

One of the new lessons asks students to address the question, “Why has cheatgrass spread so far in Wyoming since the early 1900s?” Using images of selected specimens, they are able to compare the traits and adaptations of cheatgrass to those of other Wyoming species. Maps of cheatgrass distribution – based on herbarium specimen data dating back to 1900 – show the spread of the species across Wyoming through time, enabling students to make connections to specific environments, human behavior and their own communities.

Resources and lesson suggestions are provided so that students can continue their explorations in multiple directions, including the information and supplies for students and teachers to begin exploring and documenting the diversity of plants in their communities by building their own herbarium.

In addition to the online resources, educators can request the loan of a kit that includes supplies to support student activities, such as full-size prints of the specimens, books, native grass seeds and even a plant press. The online resources and the kit request form can be found at www.rockymountainherbarium.org/index.php/education.

The Rocky Mountain Herbarium has long been a leader in specimen digitization, and its database and images are used daily by researchers around the world. However, those resources have not, until now, been readily accessible to K-12 students and educators.

“I am very excited to see the herbarium expand its audience to include more young people and educators,” says David Tank, a UW botany professor and director of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium. “The herbarium contains the largest collection of Rocky Mountain plants in the world, and we want students and teachers to know it’s here and to be able to access this treasure trove of information and data.”

The Rocky Mountain Herbarium’s work with education graduate students like Bisk has allowed it to formally develop these educational resources.

“As we move the herbarium forward, we plan to continue these partnerships to create more materials based on the research being conducted in the herbarium, and I’m excited for the possibilities. As these start to be used in classrooms around the state, it will be really great to get teachers’ feedback and input so we can make future lessons as useful as possible for them, ”Tank says. “Today’s students will be tomorrow’s stewards of our biodiversity, and knowledge of the state’s flora will make them better stewards. I can not think of many more important uses of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium’s collections. “

The mission and vision of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium are to discover and disseminate botanical knowledge, emphasizing the identification, taxonomy and distribution of plant and fungal taxa present in the Rocky Mountain region; and enhance scholarship about, and inform stewardship of, the region’s biodiversity, by making information about Rocky Mountain plant species available to researchers, land managers, students and interested citizens.

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