From school gardens to outdoor science labs | The Real Dirt

From school gardens to outdoor science labs | The Real Dirt

Many school children in Butte County may soon be using their school gardens as living laboratories, engaging in science while planting, growing, and harvesting vegetables, thanks to the Butte County Master Gardener Living Lab Program.

This program started six years ago as part of the Master Gardeners’ public outreach efforts. Partnering with Cal Fresh Healthy Living (a University of California Cooperative Extension Program focusing on nutrition education), Master Gardeners offered a hands-on curriculum for elementary school students. Using a curriculum developed by Teams with Intergenerational Support, along with community-based educational gardening and nutrition lessons, Master Gardeners began working with teachers at schools in Butte County. The curriculum focused on nutrition in order to help students move towards healthy food choices, while also demonstrating how food is grown. Unfortunately, due to the Camp Fire and the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been difficult to sustain instruction these past two years.

‘The Real Dirt’ is a column by various local master gardeners who are part of the UC Master Gardeners of Butte County.

The Master Gardener School Garden committee used this past summer as an opportunity to revisit its purpose and mission. The committee agreed that the school gardens are essential living laboratories for children, giving the students opportunities and tools to explain and evaluate the things they see. The title Master Gardener School Garden Program morphed into the Butte County Master Gardener Living Lab Program. Currently there are six Master Gardeners working with teachers at Citrus and Little Chico Creek elementary schools providing lessons aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards.

Helping to create and support school gardens in our local community is part of a long history of introducing school kids to healthful eating through science and gardening. The school garden movement began in Europe and crossed the Atlantic in the 1890s. The first American school garden was established in 1891 at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

This movement grew swiftly — by 1906 the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that there were 75,000 school gardens in the United States (James Ralph Jewell, Department of the Interior, 1907). School Gardens became essential during WWI and WWII as Victory Gardens, providing fresh fruits and vegetables for the home front as part of the war effort. The movement waned during the 1950s when America’s technological advances took center stage, but in the 1970s the environmental movement brought with it a renewed interest in school gardens.

Teachers began to promote ecological awareness through engagement in gardening activities.

Recently, due to the alarming rate of obesity in school-age children which results from many factors including poor nutrition, interest has grown in using school gardens to introduce kids to the healthful benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. The American Heart Association reports that our youngest generation is the first generation to be at risk of a lower life
expectancy than their parents. In 2012, the Trust for America’s Health stated that less than two percent of American children eat the recommended two-and-a-half cups of vegetables a day, and that by 2030 44% of Americans will be obese. Then, in its 2020 report, Trust for America’s Health reported that the U.S. adult obesity rate had reached 42.4 percent — the first time the national rate had passed the 40 percent mark. Rates of childhood obesity have also increased: 19.3 percent of young people in the U.S. between the ages of 2 and 19are obese. It appears that the predictions of 2012 are coming to fruition faster than imagined. If these trends continue, our medical community will be overwhelmed by unhealthy Americans.

In 2006, California passed Assembly Bill 1535, the California School Instructional Garden Act, supported by the state’s first lady at the time, Maria Shriver, among many others.

Out of this legislation grew the School Garden Network, a 501c (3) nonprofit organization. The School Garden Network consists of many state agencies, private companies, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations that share the mission of building and sustaining school gardens throughout California. Interested educators in the state support students’ opportunities to see exactly where their food comes from — literally building the experience from the ground up.

Through the School Garden Network, students learn about the food they grow and are given opportunities for making healthier food choices. Healthier food choices lead to better nourishment, and better nourishment leads to better health. Through their participation in this program, classroom teachers can integrate science, math, reading, environmental studies, nutrition and health in a real-life, hands-on learning lab. This interdisciplinary approach supports students’ observation, thinking and communication skills all — Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards — while also creating an inclusive, engaging learning community. In fact, one goal of the School Garden Network is to build community spirit by linking together students, teachers, school staff, parents and local businesses and organizations through a common goal.

This is precisely what the Butte County Master Gardener Living Lab team is hoping to achieve. With the goal of supporting more schools throughout the county, as well as supporting classroom teachers working with lessons aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, the Living Lab team is piloting the science and gardening curriculum presented to Butte County students. Lessons are engagement driven, provide a structure for learning and doing science in a meaningful way, and give students the tools and opportunities to explain and evaluate the things they see, touch, hear, taste, and smell every day. The Master Gardeners are hoping to expand their school garden support to include not just Cal Fresh-affiliated schools but all schools interested in using a school garden as a living laboratory. This coming spring the Butte County Master Gardener Living Lab team will give first- through sixth-grade teachers an opportunity to observe model NGSS lessons using a school garden as an outdoor science lab, and to collaborate with peers in a science-supported environment.

Clearly there are tangible results to be achieved from this collaboration. Research shows that student involvement in garden activities can:

  • Boost academic performance
  • Improve social skills and behavior
  • Enhance nutritional preferences, and
  • Increase self-esteem

Master Gardeners are also available for on-site consultations on school garden projects (both short-term and long-term). Master Gardeners can help plan and develop strategies for most aspects of a school garden, including:

  • Site selection and construction
  • Soil preparation (or refer you to a soil testing lab)
  • Plant selection and seasonal planting themes
  • Water management and irrigation systems
  • Plant propagation
  • Garden maintenance
  • Recycling andcomposting methods
  • Pest management
  • Garden-related student activities

Plant Sale

The Master Gardeners will hold their Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, Oct 30, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Demonstration Garden at Patrick Ranch at 10381 Midway in Durham. Along
with the Plant Sale, there will be two free workshops: “Gardening with Natives” at 10 a.m., and “Berry and Grape Gardening” at 11 a.m. No registration is required for these workshops; COVID safety protocols will be followed.

The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension system, serving our community in a variety of ways, including 4-H, farm advisers, and nutrition and physical activity programs. To learn more about UCCE Butte County Master Gardeners, and for help with gardening in our area, visit https://ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/. If you have a gardening question or problem, call the hotline at 538-7201 or email mgbutte@ucanr.edu.

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