PSU study: Middle school students can regain interest in sciences through participation in learning gardens
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: May 28, 2019

Growing gardens at school can help students become more interested in school and the science fields, according to a Portland State University study.

The PSU study shows that after fifth grade, students’ interest in school decreases, especially in the sciences. As students’ interest in school drops off, their grades in school will often fall too.

A team of PSU researchers — College of Education (COE) professors Dilafruz Williams and Sybil Kelley, College of Liberal Arts & Science Prof. Ellen Skinner, and Cary Sneider, a visiting scholar in the COE in Educational Leadership and Policy — has found that school gardens or learning gardens can help. The study shows that taking science lessons in a learning garden can revive students’ interest in the sciences.

“It’s an amazing collaboration across disciplines and across colleges,” Skinner said.

Learning gardens enable students to experience hands-on science lessons in a school garden with lessons and information for grades 6 to 8 that met Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). NGSS standards are national expectations that K-12 students should meet in science class. Students have the opportunity to tend plants such as tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and fennel.

“When and how do kids get motivated?” Williams asked. “When they feel competent. When they can do things that are valued; When they have a sense of relatedness with their peers and with adults. When they have a sense of autonomy.”

Published in the International Journal of STEM Education, the PSU study shares the results of a project following 113 middle school students that participating in the learning gardens program and three science teachers from two Portland-area middle schools with large low-income and minority populations.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, a federal agency supporting science research, the PSU study spans three years, but the study focused on the first year. The study was a partnership between PSU and Portland Public Schools, and the two schools involved in the study were Lane and Lent schools. Lent, a K–8 school in SE Portland, has its own garden. Lane, a 6–8 school in SE Portland, uses the Learning Gardens Laboratory (LGL), which is nearby learning garden.

Founded in 2005, the LGL serves as a hub for garden education. It arose as a partnership of PSU, Portland Public Schools, and the City of Portland, and now includes many other partners. Lane science teacher Sean Barry said he’s seen students gain skills and grow along the way because of the opportunity at LGL to enjoy hands-on learning. They could see growth cycles at work in real-life plants, for example.

“What we also see is that many students who struggle in the traditional classroom setting, have success and some even thrive in the garden setting,” Barry said.

Lane students who visit the LGL during science class to can absorb knowledge from professionals such as Heather Burns, a PSU professor and coordinator of the Leadership for Sustainability Education graduate program, and LGL site manager Luke Maurer. Maurer said he’s seen the gardens’ direct impact. He even saw one student begin at Lane and continue on to do an undergraduate capstone (a hands-on learning project in the real world for seniors) at PSU through the LGL. Burns added that the LGL’s positive effect ripples out into the world.

“In addition to benefiting youth, the LGL is fast becoming PSU’s sustainability lab,” Burns said, “where university students and faculty from a variety of disciplines engage in hands-on learning and research in interdisciplinary topics, such as sustainable food systems, climate change and community development. The Learning Gardens Lab provides an incredible opportunity for university students to gain knowledge, skills and confidence as they work together to address real issues in a vibrant learning space.”

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In Other Garden News

The Learning Gardens Laboratory (LGL) at PSU plans to establish a multi-purpose outdoor structure that will serve as a farm stand in the summer, and will offer space for volunteers, visitors and the community year-round. The PSU Foundation recently held the PS I Love U campaign in honor of PSU’s February 14 start date in 1969, during which 14 supporters gave $1,430 to the project. The LGL is located on 6801 SE 60th Avenue (across from Brentwood Park and between SE Duke and Flavel streets). To support this effort and other LGL projects, visit To volunteer to help in the garden during spring term, email spring term volunteer drop-in hours will be held from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. For more information, visit or