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Budding Botanists

Florida School Houses Nation’s First Botany Magnet Program


A magnet high school in Florida has become the first in the nation to infuse a traditional curriculum with a heavy dose of botany. The initiative at BioTECH @ Richmond Heights 9-12 High School supplements core classes with college level botany courses in plant molecular systematics.

Established with federal funding, the school opened in August 2014 through a partnership with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Miami Dade County Public Schools, and Zoo Miami.

Students use Fairchild as an extension of their classroom, and make weekly visits to conduct field research. Many of the project-based learning activities illustrate the human impact on biological diversity, which help students understand how to protect species, their habitats, and ecosystems from possible extinction.

Since 2014 students have participated in the Million Orchid Project, which reintroduces one million native orchids—endangered due to poaching and urbanization—into South Florida’s urban areas.

Last year, working in BioTECH’s state-of-the-art laboratories and guided by actual scientists, the school’s ninth graders micropropagated orchid seedlings by hand. The students’ findings and growing methods were presented last spring to visitors at the International Orchid Festival.

Later, students took their newly grown orchids and transplanted them from laboratories to public spaces throughout Miami, mainly on school grounds and in local trees. Another outplanting is scheduled this fall.

Amy Padolf, Fairchild’s director of education, said in a recent press release that the goal of the program is to increase botany education and careers. “A shortage of opportunities for students to participate in authentic scientific research—combined with diminished access to natural areas and a lack of laboratory resources within our schools—has caused students to be less prepared for college-level STEM fields,” Padolf said.

Last school year, students also completed field exploration of important plant areas, created GPS maps of native orchids, identified trees in Miami that are suitable for growing epiphytic orchids, collected seed pods to propagate new plants, and learned the proper methods of analyzing data.

At the end of four years, students are expected to publish their findings in peer review journals.

—Brenda Álvarez

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