Designing “The Garden as an Ecosystem”


by Iriowen Ojo ’19

Throughout the years, I’ve come to realize that I am the kind of person who highly dislikes being taken on tours. Ten years ago when I was in the fourth grade, my class went on a field trip to a colonial-style village during our unit on Long Island history. The excitement of missing a day of coursework wore off quickly as we were led around the museum village in the chill of early April. I remember very little from that trip, other than the moment I cut my mouth on a piece of rock candy I’d bought at the village gift shop, and the many hours I spent trailing in the back, tired and disinterested.

The next year’s spring field trip, a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, left me more irritable than did the visit to the colonial village; I wanted to participate in the tour guide’s commentary but he ignored me whenever I raised my hand. By the end of that trip, I was bored by the artwork and deeply annoyed with the tour guide. The latter has become a repeating theme, and although I admit that I am too impatient and too quick to fall victim to boredom, I get how easy it is for people to feel detached from tours when they are not invited to participate. This is something I’ve kept in mind all summer while interning at Dumbarton Oaks.

As part of public outreach, I’ve been working to encourage external involvement with the museum and gardens through social media, newsletter articles, and most of all, outreach projects. One of these projects consists of working with an elementary school in Georgetown to create educational and interactive garden tours for students. Dumbarton Oaks’ previous collaborative project with the school included a Tree Notebook workshop in which young students took a guided tour of the gardens and learned how to identify different tree species.

This summer’s project, Science in the Garden, is part of a series of collaboration efforts between Dumbarton Oaks and other D.C. public schools, and emphasizes concepts learned in second and third grade science classes. It is unique in that it tailors tour programming specifically to the school’s class curriculums. This is an important part of the tour, because irrelevance is a big problem: when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a ten-year old, I couldn’t find many connections between the Impressionist paintings we were examining and the New York history lessons we were learning in school. It’s hard to participate in touring conversation when the guide’s information is unrelated to your own. With a curriculum-based tour, the guides’ information corresponds to students’ knowledge and tours can act as either introductions or reviews, always relevant. Therefore, I decided it was extremely important to focus on consistent interaction while designing the tour, with the guide involving the students in demonstrations and lessons as much as possible.

The tour I’m planning is called “The Garden as an Ecosystem.” Spanning multiple units, “The Garden as an Ecosystem” prompts students to consider the maintenance of their neighborhoods and compare them to the maintenance of the gardens. It includes a review of concepts in a format that encourages students to participate and even take over the explanation of terms and functions: tour guides take over teaching roles and act as if the students are in an interactive classroom, asking them questions and answering questions and making sure to summarize main points at the end of each tour stop. At the conclusion of the tour, students have the opportunity to explore the garden on their own in small groups, hunting for answers to questions in the activity packets provided by Dumbarton Oaks.

Planning “The Garden as an Ecosystem” tour was both an educational and reflective experience for me. Back in second and third grade, I loved science. I even had an imaginary lab in my basement, where I’d spend hours pretending to build new inventions with my plastic tool set, or mix my mom’s shampoos and perfumes together to make “chemical solutions.” I can’t tell you what happened to me now—somewhere between the end of middle school and sophomore year of high school I developed a strong fear of all things math and science—but I do know that I probably would have enjoyed visiting Dumbarton Oaks in elementary school. Additionally, after relearning concepts as simple as the water cycle in order to come up with programming for the tour, I’ve realized how easy it is to fall behind in the sciences. “The Garden as an Ecosystem” tour’s focus on review and participation aims to not only combine education and exploration, but also to strengthen students’ understandings of concepts by anchoring them in real, memorable settings.

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