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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin The Collector

Key Stage: 

Activities provide an introduction to Charles Darwin, how and why he collected so many specimens whilst on the Beagle voyage and how his plant collections have been preserved.  Practical outdoor activities using observational, collecting and recording skills also encourage discussion of collection and conservation.

Starter Presentation

Learning outcomes

By the end of the activities pupils will be able to:

  • state who Charles Darwin was, why he was significant and understand that he had a passion for natural history and collecting.
  • describe what should be recorded when collecting specimens and the role of collections.
  • have some understanding of the complexity of conserving specimens.

Ask The Expert Video

Christine Bartram from Cambridge University's Herbarium discusses Darwin's plant collections from the Beagle voyage.

Duration: 7.50 mins

Activity 1: Create A 3d Herbarium Specimen

Explore the great outdoors. Become a plant collector and record what you find.

Duration: 90 mins

Activity 2: Write A Letter Home

Write to Darwin about an amazing discovery that you have made.

Duration 40 minutes

Further Activities

Measure the plant diversity growing under under your feet.

Duration: 40 mins

Discussion questions

1. If you were on an expedition in Darwin’s day, and wanted to send a plant specimen home by sea, which part would you choose and why?

Think about...

If you choose the whole plant, what problems might occur when trying to keep it alive on a ship for several months? What would happen if it was given salt water? Why couldn’t it be given fresh water? Think about what you would need to be able to keep the plant growing happily at home. What would happen if you took a flower, seed, leaf, or a cutting instead?

2. What is the point of having a herbarium (collection of dried plant specimens)?
How could it help you to find out where a plant once grew or even what plants to choose for your garden?

Herbaria can...

Provide a record of what was found where and when, giving visual information about the features of a plant (particularly important if a plant then becomes extinct).

- Help to identify plants.
- Help to share information with others without them visiting the area.
- Help to record change of what grows in an area over time.

There is also some potential to breed from the seed that is brought back.

3. On a modern day plant collecting expedition, what equipment would you take with you and how would you make sure that you weren’t damaging the environment or causing a rare plant to become extinct?

Think about...

How would you find your way around? What transport would you use? What tools might you need to collect the plant and what you might put it in to transport it safely? How would you record your progress? How could you limit your impact on the place that you visit?


    Schools Gallery


Pupils from Meldreth Primary School, Cambs, learn about Darwin’s fantastical voyage

Pupils from Meldreth Primary School write a letter home from the voyage

Discovering a Toxodon

Packing for a voyage

Writing letters home

3D herbarium, St Luke's Primary School, Cambridge

Pupils from St Luke's Primary School, Cambridge, create 3D herbaria

Pupil cartoon of the peppered moth story

Pupils from St Matthew's Primary School, Cambridge, read a letter from Charles Darwin