Cultivating Inquirers

By Eve Pranis

"There's no question that teachers and students are equally fascinated when they have ample time to observe and investigate flowers and their pollinating partners," reports Lisa Wagner, education coordinator at the South Carolina Botanical Garden. The programs she developed for teachers and students emphasize the approach to science teaching and learning that is central to the National Science Education Standards: they are inquiry-based, involving investigations into questions generated from learners' interests and experiences. "Our approach encourages looking closely at the natural world, promoting open exploration of ideas and 'I wonder...' questions, allowing ample time for investigations, and watching science discovery happen," explains Lisa. With support, these kinds of experiences can help learners build fundamental understandings about living systems, such as the relationships between plants and their pollinators.

Getting Started

But where should an educator begin? After inviting students to share what they know about flowers and pollinators, consider having them spend time in a school garden, wildflower meadow, or other context where flowers bloom. You might want to focus observations with questions such as, What types of insects or other animals are visiting which flowers? Are some flowers visited more often or only by certain creatures? What kinds of paths do the insects take as they move among flowers? "After giving learners time for field observations, we've sometimes heard, 'I had no ideas that flowers or flower visitors were that interesting'," says Lisa. "If I had simply presented information and handouts on what might be seen in the meadow, I'm sure we wouldn't see the same enthusiasm we see when learners discover flowers and pollinator activities for themselves.

"I believe in using the same type of investigative approach with indoor flower studies," says Lisa. "I'll start by having learners explore blooms up close, rather than start with the standard naming of flower parts." She might have students closely examine and draw flowers, identify and discuss similarities and differences, then choose a few to dissect. "From there we try to make connections back to our pollinator investigations," explains Lisa. "For instance, we may brainstorm the characteristics of insects that might visit a particular flower, then confirm our theories back in the field," she adds.

To obtain a copy of the National Science Education Standards, call the National Academy Press at 1-888-624-8373, or order or download one from their Web site (

Flower/Pollinator Investigations

As students actively explore blooms indoors and out, consider how to help them grasp the concept that every aspect of flowers is vital to their mission: to spread pollen and produce seeds. Students' observations will lead to fertile questions, some of which they can answer through investigations. When appropriate, consider infusing the following types of questions to prompt further thinking about flower/pollinator alliances.

* What flower characteristics do you think would be attractive to a pollinator with a short tongue? with no sense of smell?

* In a given flower, where are male parts in relation to female parts? What might be the advantages of these arrangements?

* Why might some stigmas be sticky?

* Can you tell if a pollinator is gathering nectar or pollen? What observations support your conclusion?

* What do you observe happening to flowers over time (e.g., petals wither, scent disappears)? How might this help the plant (doesn't have to expend energy to attract pollinators once eggs are fertilized)? What might these changes signal to pollinators?

* Which pollinators hover and which perch? How do the flowers they visit seem designed to support these habits?

Also consider collecting poetry, prose, or music with flower references. What attributes are mentioned that are key to attracting pollinators? What images or feelings are they meant to evoke?

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