Biologists have identified India as one of the top twelve megadiversity countries of the world. It harbours an estimated 500, 000 out of some 10 to 30 million species of living organisms in a variety of bio-geographic ecosystems. We have a responsibility to conserve this rich biodiversity. But to be able to conserve the diversity, what is needed first is to acquire knowledge of what exists. Documented information that is available is mostly for the economically important varieties and a few groups such as birds. Information for most other groups of organisms is scattered and not properly documented. In fact most of it is oral information resting with traditional communities. As a signatory of the Biodiversity Convention it is India’s responsibility to have a scientifically documented inventory of its biodiversity in different parts of the country. It is based on such an inventory that future monitoring and conservation is possible. But to conduct such an inventory in a short time is a monumental task and there need to be skilled personnel committed to this purpose. We have discovered that students of class 11 and 12 are ideal candidates for performing such studies.
There are many reasons why the age group, 16 to 17 years, is well suited for this kind of work, which involves long hours of outdoor study. Field studies can be physically exhausting and are therefore best suited for energetic youngsters. One needs to spend long arduous hours walking quietly amidst the wilderness, water bodies and boulders, observing, identifying, measuring, counting and describing groups of organisms and their habitats that have been chosen for study. This brings individuals close to nature — for it allows the time and space for young minds to be with and observe nature alone, and experience the joy of discovery with every new observation or sighting. A study of this kind requires an ability to be silent, patient and put in sustained effort. It also imparts new, essential skills such as that of using ecological field methods for collecting scientific data — which 16 year old youngsters are mature enough to learn. Conservation and care is an integral part of this kind of work.
Subjects such as Biology and Environmental Science easily lend themselves to understanding the richness of biodiversity and the need for conservation. Even with the present curriculum, students could take up these as topics for the projects that they need to submit in Classes 11 and 12. Biodiversity studies thus get integrated into the present curriculum without much difficulty.
Students of the above mentioned groups from The Valley School have worked (and continue to do so) over the last two years on a variety of topics chosen by them. The topics are very varied. Here are some of them:
- Tree diversity, density and abundance
- Medicinal plants, diversity, density and abundance
- Conservation of medicinal plants
- Butterfly diversity
- Arthropod diversity
- Vegetation structure
- Grazing and adaptation in plants
- Food chains and food webs
- Behavioural study on the monkey, Macaca radiata
- Fresh water habitat: water quality and faunal diversity
- Estimating water quality using bioindicators
- Mapping a water body
- Estimating costs of a natural resource in its habitat: the bamboo grove
- A nutrition survey: estimating quality and calculating costs
All the studies were to a large extent confined to the school campus initially. Students worked either independently or as small groups of two or three individuals on a chosen topic. Each study was a learning experience for the teacher and the student. On the part of the teacher, the study requires a fairly good understanding of the subject. It means planning out scientific field methods of study that can generate information that is unbiased and fairly accurate. It also requires constant working with the students in the field and interaction with experts in each of the areas of study. The topics, though varied, are intricately related to each other, and what emerges at the end is a picture of an entire ecosystem.
One particular study—medicinal plants, their diversity, density, abundance and conservation—is discussed here in a little detail to explain the entire process involved.
The entire study was undertaken over a 10-month period by three students. This was preceded by a preliminary investigation where the students were exposed to the topic, to available literature, to basic field methods for identification, documentation and quantification. They also met with experts in the field, botany taxonomists and dealers in herbal medicines. The study included identification of thirty common species of plants with known medicinal properties found on the campus, documentation of botanical information and medicinal properties, scientific illustrations and photographs. In addition, information was collected from elders at home. Students attempted to grow some of the common varieties in pots and small plots. The data collected was analyzed and finally presented as a preliminary report. This study was then extended into a more detailed one, spread over the whole academic year.
The outcome of this is a field guide and a herbarium collection of sixty species of medicinal plants (all found growing wild in the school campus), and an attempt to conserve some of them in their natural conditions with very little interference. The study also involved an extensive review of literature on threats to the vegetation and general information on traditional medicines and their place in the present context.
Properly documented data of this kind can give us a picture of the distribution of different species, the specific habitats or soil types they occupy, seasonal patterns of flowering and fruiting, all of which could throw some light on methods that need to be adopted for conserving them. Involving teachers and students in such an exercise is probably a good way of collecting detailed information that is specific to that area, an exercise that would otherwise take a long time.
This study of the wealth and extent of our natural resources has been a rich experience both for the students and the teacher. Learning from direct observation, being close to nature, also brings a refreshing dimension to our education system.
Oh that summer moon!
It made me go
Round the pond
An old silent pond...
Into the pond
A frog jumps,