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Associate Professor Dawn Sanders has been awarded a Swedish Research Council grant to carry out the project “Beyond Plant Blindness: Seeing the importance of plants for a sustainable world”. During the course of the project, Professor Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir will be based at the Art Academy and will provide an interdisciplinary angle to the project. Below is a brief summary of the project.

Contemporary humans have become an urban species. Living in megalopolitan cities reduces intimate contact with the natural world thus placing greater emphasis on ‘presented nature’ settings, such as zoos, botanical gardens and natural history museums. However, previous research has demonstrated that ‘plant blindness’ inhibits human perceptions of plants. It is human nature to ignore the plant world and perceive it as a green backdrop to the activities of the animal world. In view of increasing species extinction the world can no longer afford our citizens to see ‘nothing’ when they look at plants, the basis of most life on earth. So how can we teach people to ‘see’ plants?

Botanical gardens have received little attention in research in comparison with other learning environments, despite their key role being emphasised in the Global Plant Conservation Strategy 2011–2020. Considering current physical changes to ecosystems (Millennium Assessment 2005), evidence-based understanding of how people perceive plants is crucial for the choice of strategies to preserve plant species and natural environments, both now and in the future. Botanical gardens, with their extensive plant collections, offer opportunities for aesthetic experiences of the plant world.

Science centres often provide experiences of technology, as well as sometimes encounters with the fascinating animal world. Our hypothesis is that multi-modal and sensory experiences in constructed natural environments such as botanical gardens and science centres have the potential to accomplish a shift in perspectives so as to bring plants into the foreground, rather than them merely forming a cosmetic backdrop or pleasant embellishments. Our study will investigate how encounters with plants both in a botanical garden, where plants are in focus, and in a constructed indoor rainforest, where the focus is often on animals, can improve knowledge of plants and the importance of plants for life on earth.

The study will be carried out in three stages. Firstly, the way plants are perceived by visitors, primarily student teachers, in the two constructed natural environments will be studied. Then the visitors will get to encounter plants that are highlighted in three different ways in the exhibitions in the two environments: 1. By pointing out properties of the plants that provide sensory experiences such as smell, taste, touch; 2. Through stories about the life of the plants, such as reproduction, lifespan, defence, altruism, symbiosis and competition between species; 3. By presenting the plants from an artistic perspective. Data comprises video documentation, interviews, observations, questionnaires and mind maps, as well as the work created by participants where applicable.

In the first stage, we want to study how plants are perceived in the botanical gardens and in the constructed rainforest without making any alterations, i.e. in the normal situation, and to what extent the visitors ‘see’ and are familiar with plants. Stage 2 will study how the student teachers experience plants during their visits after the two environments have been supplemented with the aids described above. In this we will build on what emerges in stage 1. The significance of each of the various aids will be studied and related to the concept of ‘plant blindness’. In stage 3 we want to investigate whether it is possible to identify ‘critical events’ that can provide information on what may play a part in increasing participants’ ability to ‘see’ plants.

The project will help improve understanding of the aids that student science teachers may need to reduce their pupils’ ‘plant blindness’ and the significance of both living plants and different ways of presenting and describing plants in promoting knowledge of the fundamental importance of plants for life on earth. The interdisciplinary make-up of the research group brings a range of approaches and skills that lead to a multi-faceted way of tackling, exploring and drawing conclusions from the studies carried out as part of the project.

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