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NBC News: How garden-based learning helps students of color
Author: By Agnes Constante, NBC News
Posted: March 27, 2019

Read NBC New's original story.

On an overcast morning recently near downtown Los Angeles, 16 fourth-grade students scattered across their school garden to examine and identify different types of vegetation they had just reviewed in class minutes earlier.

They quickly point out California poppies, sagebrush and several other species that populate the 4,500-square-foot garden at Esperanza Elementary School. A few students crouch down to more closely observe pollinators fluttering around some of the plants.

The garden at Esperanza Elementary is one of more than 7,000 school gardens across the country, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Census taken in 2015 — learning tools the federal government has encouraged since the early 1900s.

Research has shown that the gardens are tied to a number of benefits, including higher science grades and better eating habits. And at schools attended largely by low-income students and students of color, school gardens can be particularly beneficial because they can help address some of the disadvantages students at those schools tend to face, including fewer educational resources.

“We know that the learning starts in elementary school,” said Brad Rumble, the principal at Esperanza, where a majority of students are from minority communities and nearly all receive free or reduced lunch. “We don’t know where it’s going to end, but I feel like this work plants seeds within the students’ minds of what’s possible right on their own campus.”

School gardens can also offer a potential solution to the lack of racial diversity in STEM fields, according to a 2018 study in the International Journal of STEM Education, which also noted that policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned that people of color remain underrepresented in STEM fields.

According to Pew Research, blacks and Hispanics account for 9 percent and 7 percent, respectively, of STEM workers. Many believe that limited access to quality STEM education is one reason for that lack of diversity in the field.

One way to address it, authors of the study wrote, is through learning environments like school gardens.

“There is indeed a definite connection that we find in terms of how kids who would be written off often don’t have the self-esteem that they can become a scientist at some future point,” said Dilafruz Williams, co-author of the study and a professor of leadership for sustainability education at Portland State University.

But when students successfully grow a plant, learn how to compost or take certain measurements out in the field, it strengthens their sense of autonomy and science identity.

“They start thinking of themselves as: ‘Yes, I can do this. I can learn science. I am capable.’" Williams said. "That makes a major difference in terms of what happens in the future with them pursuing a path in science."

Exposure to school gardens has also been linked to improved motivation in science and math. A key reason, Williams said, is they provide students with a hands-on learning environment.

“It turns out they really like being outdoors,” she said. “They don’t like to be seated all day long in the classroom. In their interviews they talk about, ‘I just sit on my butt all day and it’s boring.’ Everything tells us they need to be moving.”

That assessment is something Lisa Lovato, principal of Dan D. Rogers Elementary School in Dallas, has seen firsthand.

According to data from The Texas Tribune, students at Dan D. Rogers — also a majority minority school — face a handful of risk factors: About 64 percent are deemed at risk of dropping out, 77.6 percent are economically disadvantaged, and about 60 percent have limited proficiency in English.