The Education Center

PHOTO: the Education Center

"From a small seed, a mighty trunk may grow." — Aeschylus

There is a place where the power of plants to sustain and enrich learning takes real form. The Learning Campus is a developing destination at the Chicago Botanic Garden for visitors of all ages—infants to adults—that has entered a new phase. The design for the centerpiece of the Campus, the Education Center, is now complete.

Though targeted to open in 2018, the Garden will wait to begin construction of the Center until 80 percent of the project's $20 million budget is in hand and the 20 percent balance is committed through pledges.

No matter where you turn in the 20,000-square-foot Center, you'll find students of all ages and abilities in a place designed to connect people with the planet and engage the mind and spirit—in classrooms filled with natural light, in the terrace overlooking a meadow and natural amphitheater, and in the flowering gardens that frame the atrium entrance, among other areas.

Innovative programs from pre-K through Ph.D.

The Center's programs will focus on plants and the complex environmental factors—climate, water, human development, and invasive species—that support or undermine healthy ecosystems. The goal is to provide both familiar and new ways of exploring and understanding science and environmental sustainability for students of diverse backgrounds from preK through Ph.D. and beyond, a continuum that is rare in the museum world. (See the "New Education Center, New Programs" section below.) 

"I believe this rare model best serves our collective goals to conserve threatened plant species and habitats, engineer new biological answers to systemic problems, and mitigate the threats to our fragile ecosystems," said Daniel Linzer, Ph.D., Northwestern University provost and a Garden board member. "At Northwestern University, we are delighted to be the Garden's first partner in educating and inspiring young students to become the next generation of plant conservation biologists and promoting research to understand and help answer some of the hardest environmental questions of our time."

The Center will provide a first-time permanent home for programs of the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. It will host school field trips, scout programs, science experiences for middle schoolers and teens, programs of the Science Career Continuum, weekend family classes, Camp CBG and all other camps, teacher development opportunities, wellness and lifestyle programs, students with special needs, and, importantly, early childhood classes for children as young as infants (those under 2 must be accompanied by a caregiver).

LEED design

The Center—a curving, architecturally distinctive buildingwas designed by Booth Hansen, the Chicago architectural firm that won honors for the Garden's Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. Engineered to achieve a platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating for environmentally thoughtful design, the building will use natural ventilation, solar panels for energy, recycled and green-sourced materials, and a rainwater capture and storage system. (Rainwater collected from the roof will drain directly to the Garden's North Lake for recycling.)

Classrooms and other features

PHOTO: the Education Center at twilightDesigned to strengthen connections to the outdoors, the Center will have eight classrooms, each of which opens to outdoor garden spaces. Wellness classes for adults, including yoga and tai chi, will be offered in a multipurpose room off the atrium. Two of the classrooms, complete with special bathrooms, will be custom designed for early childhood programming. This important feature will allow the Garden to significantly expand its education programs for the very smallest learners, their parents, and early childhood educators.

The new building also will be accessible and welcoming to visitors with special physical and emotional needs. The south end of the Center will open on to a shaded terrace that can accommodate classes or simply offer comfortable seating and viewing onto a new lawn and garden designed by Mikyoung Kim. This landscape, featuring gently rolling turf, a meandering stream, and tree-shaded wide paths, will be fully accessible to all users and include special wheelchair viewing stops on the path. 

Teaching tools will include wireless computer communications, active use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, and smart boards to convert classroom notes and drawing into electronic records.

Other features include the following:

  • A certified teaching kitchen, which will enable children and adults to learn about food preparation and the basic math, chemistry, and physics of cooking.
  • A meteorology station, which will offer a course allowing teens to explore the interaction between weather, climate, and ecosystems.
  • A 2,000-square-foot atrium that will welcome visitors and offer activity space for students and groups. The Astellas Atrium will present the work of advanced high-school students working in a new summer program focused on science education.
  • A nature laboratory that will allow for year-round teaching about plant and animal ecosystems, and plants from different growing zones.
  • The seasonal Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, which will be filled with hundreds of live butterflies. This exhibition includes species native to South America, Asia, North America, and Africa, as well as those native to Illinois.

New Education Center, New Programs

Garden educators are developing new program concepts for the Education Center that illuminate the genius of nature and the cross-disciplinary knowledge behind plant science research, development, and discovery. These programs include the following:

  • Biomimetic Solutions: The Garden will expand on a nascent collaboration with the engineering department at Northwestern University to develop a multisession biomimicry course that will challenge teens to examine the natural structures around them and to use unique features of those structures to address human design problems.

  • Defending the Pollinators: As a core feature of the Education Center's programming and informal messaging to its audiences, the Garden will create an integrated pollinator story consisting of the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, an observation beehive, and associated Garden science reports and other media that help visitors understand our reliance on pollinators and what threatens and protects them.

  • Weather, Meteorology, and Climate—The Plant Connection: New scientific instruments, including a meteorological (MET) station; access to plant population data collected by Garden scientists; and the new GIS lab at the Plant Science Center will inform a weather, climate, and climate-change modeling course allowing teens explore the interaction between weather, climate, and ecosystem function.

  • The Chemistry and Physics of Cooking: Participants will explore the math and science of cooking and the processes that transmute carbohydrates, starch, and protein into nutritional failure or success. The teaching kitchen has been funded by the ITW Foundation.

  • Communicating Science to the Public—The Young Have It: The atrium will provide a wonderful venue for displays that engage the visiting public with the Garden's mission and research. The atrium can present the work of advanced high-school students working in a new summer program focused on science communications. The Astellas Atrium has been funded by Astellas USA Foundation.

ILLUSTRATION: schematic of the learning campus, highlighting the Education Center.