Science in the Learning Gardens (SciLG): Factors that Support Racial and Ethnic Minority Students’ Success in Low-Income Middle Schools is a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in its second year at PSU that is designed to study the impact of using garden-based education to support Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) among racial- and ethnic-minority students. The $500,000 project, which is a partnership between PSU and Portland Public Schools, serves sixth through eighth graders at Lent and Lane Middle Schools in outer Southeast Portland. Both schools have high numbers of students who are low income and minorities. PSU’s Learning Gardens Laboratory is one of the sites serving Lane. About 200 sixth graders participated in the first year.
The SciLG is led by long-time school garden pioneer and researcher Dilafruz Williams, with Sybil Kelley in Educational Leadership and Policy, Cary Sneider in the PSU Science Education Center, and Ellen Skinner in the PSU Psychology Department in a unique cross-disciplinary approach.
Two important features differentiate the project. First, while most school garden programs exist in lower elementary grades, the SciLG is designed for middle schoolers. By continuing the study with the same group of students over three years, sixth through eighth grades, investigators are collecting unique longitudinal data on engagement and motivation.
Second, the project is aligned with the national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Oregon is one of the lead states that has adopted the new standards, which had not been updated in 15 years. The new NGSS establish what K–12 students will need to know and be able to do upon graduating from high school. Rapid advances in science and technology in recent years and new information about how students learn prompted the update, along with the goal for American students to graduate and better compete in a global economy. The hope is that by increasing skills and interest at the middle school level, Lane and Lent schools’ culturally diverse students will have better proficiency in STEM classes in high school and beyond.
“We at PSU have seized the opportunity to bring together two significant education movements,” said Williams, principal investigator on the grant. “One is NGSS. And the other is the surge of interest in school gardens across the nation. With tens of thousands of school gardens across the country, research shows that school gardens positively impact student outcomes, especially in science.”
Underscoring both goals is the need to increase diversity of workers in the sciences overall. An annual report from the NSF, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, stated, “The representation of certain groups of people in science and engineering (S&E) education and employment differs from their representation in the U.S. population. Women, persons with disabilities, and three racial and ethnic groups—blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaska Natives—are considered underrepresented in S&E.” With a lack of role models in the system, students of color are not inclined to seek STEM careers.
Kelley, co-investigator, said, “I am excited to be leading the curriculum design and alignment with NGSS, along with assessments that will weave together disciplinary core ideas, science, and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts in the context of the garden.” Sneider, also co-investigator, shared that “school garden curricula commonly incorporate core ideas in the life sciences and earth sciences; however, the curriculum being developed in this project also focuses on the NGSS core ideas in engineering design.”
Will students become engaged in science and achieve more academically as a result of the garden project? PSU psychology professor Skinner is co-investigator for SciLG. Drawing upon self-determination theory, she has created a model for intrinsic motivation and engagement to study the effects of the garden on student outcomes. For her, “this model places student engagement with academic work at the core of program effects.”
The SciLG also utilizes PSU graduate students in the Leadership for Sustainability Education (LSE) program as interns and garden educators who work alongside middle-school teachers. This creates a notably low adult-to-student ratio, leading to better instructional enrichment.
With the growing interest in school garden projects across the country, this project has potential for widespread national impact. In a recent article, the Department of Housing and Urban Development highlighted the SciLG project and several other PSU efforts to serve urban communities.
To learn more about the SciLG project, view the NSF Teaching and Learning video showcase.
To learn more about the Learning Gardens Laboratory, visit the website.