From Seed… to Corn… to Popcorn:
a Vegetable Garden reshapes Hofstra's Elementary Education Science Methods Courses
Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Teaching
Co-Director, Master of Arts Program in Elementary Education, Math, Science and Technology
Hofstra's School of Education and Allied Human Services inaugurated a teaching vegetable garden last spring. Undergraduate and graduate students now use the vegetable garden to learn the big science ideas behind plant development and growth. They engage in scientific experimentation as they study the different conditions that affect plant growth; they learn science content matter as they discuss, read about and experiment with plants; they exercise basic principles of teaching and learning science as they work in outdoor classrooms with groups of elementary students; and they cultivate environmentally responsible behavior throughout the entire process.
The Seeds: The Project Begins
The idea of having a vegetable garden for teaching and learning purposes goes back to the day when I was an elementary and middle school teacher in Caracas, Venezuela. Improvement in test results as well as increased interest in science classes made the vegetable garden project a model for other pedagogical innovations in the school. It inspired the use of an interdisciplinary approach, hands-on activities, and project-based learning. From then on, I became an advocate for outdoor classrooms as tools for teaching and learning. Now, many years later, as a Hofstra professor and researcher, I am exploring ways in which vegetable gardening enhances teaching and learning science in graduate and undergraduate elementary science methods courses.
At first, it didn't occur to me that we could actually start a garden at Hofstra, so I started to look for opportunities in nearby schools. I was a newcomer to Long Island (I had just recently moved from Canada) and, as a science education professor, I wanted to make connections with some of the local schools. I found out that Lido Elementary School (in the neighborhood where I live) had a pond and a pumpkin patch, and the school was interested in a vegetable garden extension. A partnership was born. Hofstra offered the Lido school teachers pedagogical support to prepare and implement outdoor classroom teaching strategies and activities. Lido Elementary offered Hofstra students the opportunity to teach small groups of elementary students in an outdoor classroom setting.
In spring 2006 the collaboration began. At the Lido school garden, Hofstra students, together with the Lido second graders and their teachers, prepared the soil for planting cool weather crops such as radishes, spinach, lettuce, beets and carrots. Students kept track of the growth of the vegetables that were planted, until the harvest eight weeks later. The harvest activity, with parents and community invited to participate, was videotaped; and, as part of an educational technology initiative, Hofstra students created a blog (www.teachingandlearningthrough vegetab.blogspot.com/), where we shared recipes, pictures and information regarding the vegetable garden, including the video.
With the success of the pilot project, it seemed possible to implement a vegetable garden at our own School of Education and Allied Human Services. The loading dock right outside the science room had the building dumpster, but it also had the three main requirements necessary to start a garden: a strip of grass, plenty of sunshine, and water.
The dean allocated some funds, and we installed a railing to delimit the garden and acquired a set of 10 Earth Boxes, distributed by "The Growing Connection," a program of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Hofstra students now benefit from a partnership with a program whose mission is to connect youth from around the world by promoting growth of fresh, nutritious vegetables in sustainable container gardens, providing them with hands-on learning opportunities in nutrition, life science, entrepreneurship and civic engagement.
The Corn: Action in the Vegetable Garden Enhances Learning
Spring 2007 saw the inauguration of Hofstra's Hagedorn Hall vegetable garden. Students helped prepare the soil for planting, and they germinated corn, bean, and sweet pea seeds, which they planted in the Earth Boxes and in the garden. They prepared spinach and lettuce germinators, they planted radishes directly in the garden, and they planted seedlings of carrots, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, leeks, eggplant, zucchini, and a variety of herbs such as basil, parsley, dill, and cilantro. They also kept a compost bin to recycle dry leaves and other garden residues. Students watered and weeded the plants throughout the summer; in the fall, they shared the produce at a Harvest Festival with the students of Uniondale's Walnut St. School. As they gardened, Hofstra students constructed their own understanding about science concepts and skills related to plant development and growth; they also learned about teaching and learning science in outdoor classrooms, and at the same time they engaged in environmentally responsible behavior.
Learning About Science
As they worked in the garden, students learned the big science ideas related to plant development and growth. They learned about plant life cycles by observing and caring for the plants throughout their life cycles: they collected seeds from the plants they themselves planted from seeds. They learned about radishes, carrots, lettuce, beets, broccoli, etc., by planting them, watching them grow, harvesting them and eating them. Students learned about insects and their life cycles when they found a caterpillar that turned into a butterfly. They learned about soil composition by feeling and manipulating it. Students mentioned that they had learned "how to use a garden and how to teach about plants and animals," and how this experience was important because it would help them as teachers "when planning this activity again." Students recognized the importance of hands-on activities; they mentioned that these activities "enhance the learning process," and are "essential," "important," and "lots of fun." Benefits from the vegetable garden experience resonated among graduate and undergraduate students, professors and faculty. As one student mentioned, "The garden engages us, and when we're engaged, we learn more. And that's really the point."
The lessons and activities Hofstra students prepared for their work in the garden took into account that investigations in science involve predicting, asking questions, observing, recording data, and explaining. For example, through their observations, research and investigations into the characteristics of earthworms, they learned about the earthworms' contributions to soil quality and how they ultimately enhance vegetable growth. Predicting what would happen to the earthworms throughout the winter encouraged ongoing investigation and modeled the idea of sustained inquiry. Students compared growth in the Earth Boxes and in the garden, and came to the conclusion that the Earth Boxes – designed to optimize nutrients, control watering, and protect against weeds – resulted in better crops.
An outdoor classroom fosters meaningful learning by encouraging students to make connections between their own life experiences in the environment and concepts in science, mathematics, social studies, arts, language, and technology (Drake, 2004). Hofstra students designed, planned and engaged in activities that integrated science, technology, arts, social studies, history, math and language arts. Students studied how vegetables were used in different cultures throughout history; in math, they calculated dimensions; in science, they classified vegetables and reflected on their buoyancy and density; in language arts, they made a scrapbook; in social studies, they studied Colonial Americans' use of vegetable dyes as well as traditions such as Thanksgiving that are associated with harvest; in technology, they created a Web site and blog with digital garden photos, video, recipes and other information. Students studied the nutritional value of the different vegetables they planted; they studied the different parts of the plant that the vegetables represented (carrots and radishes as roots; spinach and lettuce as leaves); and they studied child obesity problems related to poor nutritional habits.
An interdisciplinary curriculum that focuses on problem-based and project-based approaches to teaching and learning increases motivation, makes learning relevant to the real world, promotes higher-order thinking, metacognition and self-regulated learning, and engages learners in authentic and meaningful learning (Gerdes and Seidel, 2006; Torp and Sage, 2002). Students mentioned that the vegetable garden allowed them "to connect science with real world experiences."
Outdoor classrooms are also embedded in what Lave (1988) refers to as the apprenticeship model, where the learner is part of a community of practice. An experienced gardener explains the "how-to-do" by doing, and the apprentice develops the skills and knowledge to be a successful practitioner. We invited Frederick Soviero, Hofstra's director of grounds, to share his expertise regarding general topics related to the garden, which included planting crops indigenous to Long Island and pest control. Another guest in our class was Robert Patterson, senior liaison officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, who assisted us in the installment and preparation of the Earth Boxes, and explained the foundations of the international "Growing Connection" program.
Learning About Teaching and Learning Science
Outdoor classrooms provide an ideal context for prospective teachers to reflect on their teaching practices and to transition from theory to practice (Sobel, 2005). In the vegetable garden, students interacted with both the physical world and the social world. They worked in the garden, and they were also part of a group that provided the social interaction necessary for learning.
In Hofstra's vegetable garden, the pedagogy related to teaching and learning science was promoted through manipulative experiences in small groups, which allowed students to interact and to construct their own understanding of the different science concepts. Experience in the vegetable garden engaged them in what the National Research Council (NRC) refers to as "learning with understanding" (Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 2002, p. 8).
Hofstra students also worked together with elementary students during the outdoor activities in the vegetable garden. They realized the importance of organizing a large group into smaller groups for teaching and learning purposes. One participant mentioned that "when you have a large group working outside, it's easier to separate the kids into small groups."
All the activities Hofstra students prepared reflected the state standards and the school's curriculum. Developing activities about food webs, life cycles, soil composition, ecosystems, and energy transfer was an effective way for them to learn about state and school requirements.
One student mentioned, "an interesting thing that I learned from this experience was how other schools work, and how teachers interact with students at different schools." This exposure to different schools gives students an initiation and exposure to their future professions.
Students learned how to teach science by teaching science. For example, during the Harvest Festival, Hofstra undergraduate students organized workshops for fifth grade students of Walnut St. School (Uniondale School District): "Vegetable Preservation: Canning and Pickling," "Preparing Natural Dyes From Beets and Spinach," "Making Strawberry Ice Cream," "Making Apple Sauce," and "Making a Scarecrow." Hofstra students found themselves doing more than preparing a hypothetical classroom assignment for the elementary classes. They were preparing pedagogical material to be used in a real classroom. This made the activity meaningful and relevant.
They also learned how to teach science using technology. Hofstra students created a blog where they posted information, pictures, videos, recipes, lesson plans, and hands-on activities (http://www.teachingandlearningthrough vegetab.blogspot.com/). They also set up a webcam to register the metamorphosis of the caterpillar they found in the garden. The preparation of the blog enhanced learning the different concepts in science as well as some of the principles of teaching and learning science. For example, one of the principles of teaching science is to ask engaging and meaningful questions instead of offering information or answers, and the students designed the blog in keeping with these principles.
The Popcorn: Action in the Vegetable Garden Cultivates Environmentally Responsible Behavior
Hofstra students were in awe when they saw the corn seeds germinate in a small cup and develop into a huge plant producing its own corn. They were even more amazed when they popped the new corn seeds and ate the popcorn! Actions in the garden had literally produced fruits, and this was a source of motivation to learn more about the plants, their growing cycles, the conditions they need for growth, the use of fertilizers, the kinds of diseases by which they would be affected, etc. It was also a source of motivation for these prospective teachers to use outdoor classrooms in their future classrooms:
I think the vegetable garden project was a wonderful experience that I hope to bring to my classroom one day. I really enjoyed setting up the box and planting the different seeds, as I am sure my students will enjoy it as well one day. The vegetable garden idea is very engaging and hands on for students, and they will want to be a part of it!
– Holly Herbold
Moreover, the goals of Hofstra's science methods courses include encouraging students to actively engage in environmentally responsible behavior, and the vegetable garden provided this opportunity. Students realized, for example, that it is through everyday actions and behaviors that they contribute to the global efforts necessary to address environmental issues. In the context of schools, this means that teachers and students have to practice the responsible behaviors children are expected to develop in the future. As Sobel (2007, p. 18) points out: "Rather than taking eight-year-olds to the Global Warming slide show, it might be more useful, in the long run, to take them fishing or blueberry picking" or, in our case, "vegetable gardening." As one Hofstra student expressed:
The garden instills the value of environmental conservation, […] if students grow to appreciate plants and flowers and the positive effects they have on people and the world, they're more likely to help preserve nature and respect it as something to be valued.
– Andrea Stein
An interesting expression of the students' engagement in environmental awareness occurred when we were discussing global warming. I asked them if they could see any connection between global warming and their vegetable garden. "If you have your own vegetables," they explained, "you don't have to burn fossil fuels to drive to the store to buy them," and you "don't have to buy imported vegetables that are transported from far away countries and are ‘oil stained' (which means that a lot of oil is required to transport them)."
Vegetable gardening also builds community among students, teachers, faculty, professors, school administrators and parents, and therefore plays an important role in effective teacher education programs (Cochran-Smith, M., and Lytle, S., 2001). One of the major benefits of implementing the Hofstra vegetable garden project was the collaboration and cooperation between professors and students. Work in the garden contributed to a general atmosphere of solidarity, complicity and "wanting to be in the science class."
Finally, the partnership with the United Nations program The Growing Connection allowed the students in the science methods classes to have a broader vision of the problems and difficulties confronted by countries in the world where conditions for growing fresh, nutritious vegetables are poor. This promoted awareness and environmentally responsible behavior. As a result, one of the students whose family lives in South Africa committed to presenting and launching The Growing Connection program in Cape Town.
Hofstra undergraduate and graduate students in the elementary science methods courses now have a new outdoor classroom in the form of a vegetable garden. This innovative learning environment provides students with opportunities to develop knowledge and competency in understanding three basic aspects of teaching and learning science: concepts and skills in science, principles of teaching and learning science, and environmentally responsible behavior. Through the vegetable garden, Hofstra students learned how to implement an interdisciplinary curriculum approach where science, math, social studies, reading, and the use of technology (podcasts, blogs and Web sites) are integrated under the umbrella of a main problem or project. Practice in the vegetable garden project allowed Hofstra students to revisit theory in light of practice, allowing them to construct their own understanding of theories of teaching and learning in ways that make sense to them. Problem solving, projectbased learning, preparing lesson plans and pedagogical materials, group work, science teaching, building community, fostering environmental awareness – all this makes sense in a new way in light of their experience in the vegetable garden. Engaging future elementary science teachers in this constructivist approach, through their work in the vegetable garden, helps to show them what the experience of an outdoor classroom looks like as they construct ideas of what it means to teach and learn science. Cultivating environmental awareness and responsible behavior today will prepare Hofstra students to become the informed, active and engaged citizens of tomorrow.
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