Gardens Changing Minds
by Greg Ellis-Valencia - Executive Director, One Cool Earth
When people ask me why I work in the garden, I always think of Joey (his name has been changed here). Some mornings I would show up at the school garden in a foul mood, there only to fix a broken pipe or pull weeds. Joey would see me walking towards the garden and set up the cry, "Is the garden open?! Is the garden open?!" I couldn't help but crack a smile, no matter the serious nature of my business that day.
Joey's school has partnered with One Cool Earth since Joey was in the 3rd grade. When the garden opens, he's the first in and the last out. He is constantly asking questions, finding new insects (sphinx moth caterpillars, preying mantis, blue belly lizards, spiders, rollie pollies), and taking projects home--he's even planted his own garden at home. When he was in the 3th grade, he helped to plant sweet corn before school got out. After summer, he came back as a 4th grader to harvest in the fall his mother took some of the corn home to make tamales for the garden crew. Now in the 5th grade he is in the garden for his weekly science class, participating in standards-based hands-on activities and conducting experiments. In late May, his class will rehabilitate a part of the school landscape, combining the engineering design process and what they've learned about soil, habitat, Earth systems (geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere), and human impacts on the environment.
For many of Joey's peers, science does not come easily. Fewer than 50% of 5th grade students in his school are 'proficient' in science, according to state standardized testings. Low science scores at an elementary level translate into lower science performance throughout a child's educational pathway, and limit career options in their future. While there are many factors behind this figure, EarthGenius programming addresses two of the main ones:
1. While elementary teachers are overwhelmingly amazing, skilled teachers, they often lack formal training in science. Providing standards-based, science-focused teacher trainings three times per year helps teachers improve their capacity to teach rigorous, engaging science. Our trainings give them the garden and all its inter-related windows on the world as a context for their science classes.
2. Teaching students directly, using the garden as a living laboratory for students to experience hard-to-understand concepts in a personal, fun setting. California's adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards particularly lends itself to garden-based education, where experiences, higher-level thinking, and projects are emphasized more than memorization and text-book learning.
Most importantly, recent studies have borne out the validity of these methods to improve student science comprehension. One study by REAL School Gardens saw standardized test scores increase by up to 15% after teachers were trained garden-based science pedagogy.
Back in the garden last week, I asked Joey whether he thought the garden was helping him in science. He said, "I think so! I'm learning all about plants and animals, and I really like them." Joey's friend piped in too--"I want to study plants in college, so I figure I can learn as much as possible about them now."