ARTICLE BY ALICE DETERS | PHOTOS BY KAYLIN BOWEN AND POPI LEDBETTER
While many students are drawn to service-learning courses because they give them the opportunity to promote positive growth in their communities, students in one course also strive for a more literal growth. Through UH 120 Let’s Grow, honors students teach and facilitate lessons in elementary-school gardens.
In class at UA, students learn about experiential education, food systems, child nutrition and the benefits and methods of garden education.
“Getting to work in the gardens really changed my perspective,” says Grace Kyle, a sophomore whose New College depth study is in nonprofit management and food sustainability. “At the beginning of the semester, we read a lot about the history of school gardens, but getting to actually work in one and to see firsthand all of the positive aspects that the gardens can bring to students truly affirmed for me that school gardens are a necessary and worthwhile way for children to learn.”
Students spend three hours each week working with Druid City Garden Project to facilitate garden lessons at two public schools in the Tuscaloosa area. UA students also help elementary school children operate farm stands where they sell the produce they’ve grown to the community. DCGP is a nonprofit organization that operates school gardens in the Tuscaloosa area and leads classes in six schools. Each year, more than 1,300 children learn about healthy eating, community gardening and sustainability through weekly, garden-based lessons that connect classroom activities to the real world and meet Alabama’s Course of Study guidelines. Since the Let’s Grow course began in Spring 2014, 12 students have dedicated 440 hours to working with children in the gardens.
“We did a variety of activities at the school,” Kyle says. “We would start out the semester by prepping the garden with the kids. Then, as the semester went on, some days we would harvest; some days we would plant. We would also lead reflection time in the classroom, where UA students would encourage elementary schoolers to reflect on what they had learned that day through various activities, including journaling.”
UA students also are responsible for writing their own weekly reflections as journal entries.
“As a final project, we were in charge of designing a lesson plan about planting or nutrition and teaching it to the kids,” Kyle says. Lesson plans must meet Druid City Garden Project’s mission of providing science- and math-based lessons in fun, hands-on settings that allow children to “think with their hands.”
Rachel Solino, a senior double majoring in Spanish and international studies, says that despite her lack of gardening knowledge prior to participating in the program, Let’s Grow was a fulfilling experience. “I think my favorite part was getting to learn along with the kids,” she says. “I grew up in a city, so I had hardly any experience with gardening, especially vegetables and things like that. This program was such a unique opportunity for me to not only be able to teach the kids, but to also learn so much more than I expected about the value of gardens within the schools as well as the community.”
Kyle says she particularly appreciated being able to educate kids about nutrition. “It’s so nice to be able to teach them something that will continue to be important their whole lives,” she says. “It was cool to see how much fun they were having learning where their food comes from. I also loved being able to come to the garden each week and sort of get away from everything for a few hours. It was very cathartic.”
Kyle says the course also was a good fit for her nonprofit management and food sustainability major.
“It was a way for me to take the things that I am learning about in my classes and implement them in a real-life situation,” Kyle says. “I have learned more through this course than any others at the University so far.”
Lindsay Turner, executive director of Druid City Garden Project, says the program fills a need all schools have.
“We have a dream that one day every school in Alabama will have a school garden,” Turner says. “We will continue to educate communities and promote sustainable, local foods while also providing critical science and math lessons to elementary students.”
Since DCGP broke ground in May 2010, UA students from across disciplines have contributed to the initiative. UA students in the Culverhouse College of Commerce have prepared DCGP’s annual report; students in New College organic farming courses have cared for gardens, built vermicompost systems and sold produce at local farmers’ markets; UA’s Chapter of Student Engineers in Action constructed a greenhouse and a packing shed at DCGP’s University Place Elementary School garden; students in the College of Human Environmental Sciences have created recipe cards and a cook book for the organization and helped plant a fruit-tree orchard; students in UA’s Art Department have created graphic-design materials for DCGP’s programs; and the College of Communication and Information Sciences has developed advertising campaigns for DCGP fundraising events.
In addition to being a vehicle for hands-on math and science lessons, school gardens also teach children life lessons such as patience and responsibility as they nurture plants throughout a season. Through DCGP’s Budding Entrepreneurs program, children also put business and entrepreneurship lessons into action when they market and sell garden produce.
While education communities have begun to recognize the benefits of school gardens, and the number of garden programs in schools is growing, Let’s Grow is unique in utilizing college students to implement lessons in schools and train educators in outdoor-classroom practices. In addition, it is the only systemic, school-based model in Alabama to address issues of childhood obesity, experiential education and food-system inequalities.
“This class has really opened my eyes to how beneficial school gardens truly are – from higher test scores to the many health benefits to the greater appreciation for nature that comes from learning where exactly food comes from,” Solino says. “I hope that school gardens become more widespread so more students can experience what I and the children I taught have.”
For more information on UH 120 Let’s Grow, contact Lindsay Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 205-523-5450.
UA students research the benefits of DCGP school gardens
Research by UA faculty and students shows children’s involvement with DCGP school gardens leads to healthier food choices, more willingness to try or eat vegetables, better plant knowledge, greater interest in learning and higher reading and math standardized test scores.
“This research has provided DCGP with empirical evidence of the impact of their school garden programming,” says Caroline Boxmeyer, who led the study and is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine and a research scientist at UA’s Center for Prevention of Youth Behavior Problems. “This research has also demonstrated that participating in the DCGP school garden does not jeopardize children’s academic learning; rather, participation is associated with higher school engagement and academic achievement.”
Approximately 15 UA students assisted with the research as volunteers by administering surveys and entering and organizing data. During the 2013-14 school year, the team surveyed 150 children at a school with an established school garden and at a school that was just developing its garden. They also surveyed parents, teachers and school administrators.
Boxmeyer says helping with the study benefited UA students interested in research by giving them experience collaborating with a community organization, formulating research questions and carrying out data collection, entry and analysis.
Courtney Ricciardi, a junior majoring in psychology and minoring in human development and family studies, spent one to four hours per week assisting with the project over three semesters. “I have gained a lot of knowledge regarding the ins and outs of the research process,” Ricciardi says. “This project has afforded me the opportunity to meet some fantastic students and teachers as well as learn a lot about nutrition. My greatest takeaway from this project, however, will be the knowledge that it is possible and very rewarding to use something you’re interested in to serve the community.”
— Olivia Grider