Natural history has taken a big hit in public schools and universities, where it is hardly taught. I’ve written about that unfortunate decline and its significance twice here before, but I recently learned of a new program that may be an important step in the right direction.

This spring the New York Botanical Garden will begin offering an Urban Naturalist Certificate Program. The program aims to generate citizen scientists through a combination of observations, lectures, and field trips on the plants and animals of New York City's natural areas. Using ruler, loupe, binoculars and (the oft-dreaded) dichotomous keys to identify organisms, the students will describe and photograph their finds on iNaturalist and elsewhere. And they will learn to give interpretive nature tours themselves.

The course meets for five weeks three times a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. During weekdays students will hear lectures and explore the botanic garden. On Saturday field excursions, the students will visit Central Park, Pelham Bay Park, and other urban natural areas. According to the program’s coordinator, the organizers believe it is the first continuing education program to ever offer a general comprehensive introduction to the city’s natural history.

The only thing I am not enthusiastic about is the course’s price: $1,145 for botanic garden members and $1,259 for non-members. I understand 60 hours of three instructors’ time is a lot, but it will be hard to attract people who aren’t already certain they love natural history – or already know much of the course’s content – at that price. In order to reach the general public we are going to have to find a more affordable option. Perhaps the students of this program can go out and start their own less expensive courses to reach a still broader audience.

Regardless of its steep price, it is a brilliant concept, and something more botanic gardens, zoos, and natural history museums in the United States and around the world should seriously consider creating more of. If schools will not offer natural history instruction, then these other institutions should do what they can to pick up the slack. People cannot value or protect what they don’t realize exists.

The course begins April 19, and interested parties can find out more here.