Sowing seeds of learning
Sharon Oosthoek | April 27, 2015In the mid-1990s, Maurice DiGiuseppe found himself wandering around a school garden in Hamilton, marvelling at how teachers had incorporated it into a novel lesson plan. The student-run garden at Saint Mary Catholic Secondary School was entirely taken up with plants mentioned in the Bible. Each plant was labelled with its history and use. Strategically-placed benches encouraged students to sit and read. This was thinking outside the plant box, he said to himself, and decided to make a research project out of leveraging school gardens to teach parts of the curriculum — including math and social science — not normally connected with gardens. "Environmental deficit disorder is a big theory in education right now: students are not connecting with nature," says DiGiuseppe, a professor of education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. "I think there is truth in it. But gardens can help with more than that." Since that day in Hamilton, DiGiuseppe has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about what works and what doesn't when connecting gardens and learning. His current project — case studies of four Ontario schools — is meant to guide teachers to make the most of their school garden. His research subjects include a high school in Peterborough where the teacher in charge of the student-run garden is using it to teach math, economics and social science, in addition to more obvious classes in science and geography. Students not only take care of the vegetable garden, they pickle and can produce for sale and use the proceeds to make micro loans of $200 to $300 in the developing world. The students then follow their borrowers' progress in implementing their business plans and write up posters and multimedia documentaries describing their findings. Each class is a focus group DiGiuseppe and one of his graduate students sit in on planning sessions for each school garden, observe students as they plant and weed, and even accompany them on field trips to buy materials and learn how to manage pests. "We are treating each class as a focus group. At the end of this, we'll have a multi-media case study to present," says DiGiuseppe. But it's not all sunshine and roses. He will also chronicle the challenges involved in making school gardens work. For example, getting school boards to provide a suitable parcel of land usually involves a lot of red tape, he says. And plans to have students build their own raised planting boxes can run into road blocks connected to building and safety standards. With about a year's worth of data under his belt, DiGiuseppe is ready to begin disseminating his findings this summer at international educational conferences. He also has plans to publish his research in educational journals. "This is fabulous stuff," says DiGiuseppe, and the word "really needs to be spread."