Cultivating Knowledge

A stone’s throw from bustling 38th Street, just off Hamilton Walk, lies a carefully curated green oasis, and nearby, a soaring glass-walled structure where plants from the exotic to the mundane are cared for and studied.

The James G. Kaskey Memorial Garden, better known as the BioPond, is a well-loved campus resource by those in the know.

The plantings in the BioPond and the Greenhouse provide the raw material for faculty and student research, helping to answer questions fundamental to biology and ecology. They also serve as educational destinations for students embarking on serious studies of biological systems.

The first encounter many students have with these areas occurs during a tour as part of an entry-level biology class, which is critical to give students a well-rounded education, says Tracylea Byford, manager of the BioPond and the Greenhouse.

Many faculty members in the Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences integrate the Greenhouse into lessons and labs.

Class members perform experiments with Greenhouse plants, such as measuring the transpiration rates of tomato plants exposed to various environmental conditions. Such concepts could easily be taught from a textbook, but the Greenhouse adds an invaluable element of hands-on learning, says Brenda Casper, a professor of biology.

“We’re in a city and so far from field sites that it can be difficult to teach ecology courses,” Casper says. “It’s much more stimulating for students to work with the real material.”

Scott Poethig, the Patricia M. Williams Professor of Biology, makes regular use of the Greenhouse for both pedagogical and research purposes. In “The Biology of Food,” an Academically Based Community Service course offered in the spring, Poethig and his students mentor high school students, helping them create a vegetable garden on a plot of land just outside the Greenhouse.

Penn’s Greenhouse is quite tall relative to similar structures, which has proved useful for Poethig’s study of the transition from the juvenile form to the adult form in tropical acacia trees. “The acacias are over a year old and are already five meters [about 16 feet] tall,” he says. “They’re thriving in the Greenhouse.”

For Byford, sometimes the most rewarding Greenhouse “lessons” can be the simplest. Showing off one of the Greenhouse’s specimens, Mimosa pudica, or “sensitive plant,” which moves in response to being touched, never fails to elicit a sense of wonder.

“Everyone,” she says, “from the tiniest daycare child to a 16-year-old high school student to a tenured faculty member—they all light up when they see this.”

Text by Katherine Unger Baillie
Photos by Scott Spitzer