A Decade of Organic Partnerships

UA students learn while meeting local need

By:
Carolyn Niethammer, Chris Richards photos

Small yellow and white spring flowers welcome fourth graders as they gather under a ramada in the garden at Ochoa Community School, a magnet elementary school in Tucson. 

The school garden coordinator, Addie Provenzano, aided by University of Arizona intern Idrian Mollaneda, is explaining how pollination works. Nearby, UA intern Rachel Stilley is digging holes at one end of a garden sporting lush bean plants and trailing watermelon vines. The interns are students in the UA Community and School Garden Workshop. Helping in a school garden is part of their curriculum. 
 

Students at Manzo Elementary in Tucson admire squash they grew in their school garden.

For listening attentively to the botany lesson, the fourth graders are rewarded by time in the chicken coop, where they cuddle Snowball, Caramel, Wendy and Dot. 

"The garden is a natural science laboratory,” Provenzano says. “Learning isn’t forced when the children are outside. They naturally ask a lot of questions.”

The popular UA class, in the College of Social and Behavioral Science’s School of Geography and Development, fills to capacity each semester and is now entering its 10th year. The course developed from one UA student’s desire for community involvement and local schools’ need for help running schoolyard gardens. In 2009, a UA student came to Sallie Marston, a professor of geography, and proposed an independent study course based on supporting a new garden at a Tucson charter school. The next semester, five students requested the same opportunity. 

“Three years later, when the number got to 25 students, it was clear there was need for a class,” Marston says. She found broad support for the proposal, and the class soon was fully subscribed at 60 students a semester.

“The interns, the teachers and the schoolchildren all love the school gardens,” Marston says. “There are so many things the kids can learn — what makes good soil, how to harvest rain water, entrepreneurship when they sell their organic eggs and fish in a school-run farmer’s market, and how to make group decisions.”

As the course grew, a larger program was created around it and staff were added. Marston shares the teaching with Jill Williams, director of the Women in Science and Engineering Program, alternating semesters. In 2012, the Community and School Garden Program, or CSGP, added Moses Thompson as a coordinator between the UA and Tucson Unified School District, known locally as TUSD. Thompson, originally a school counselor, had nationally recognized success in developing a garden at Manzo Elementary School. 

Two more staff positions were added soon after. One was funded by the Zuckerman Family Foundation and one by the Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation. Another will be added this year.

The course is cross-listed in 10 UA departments, and students come from such diverse majors as art, nutrition, plant science, Latin American studies, public health and education. Before their internships in the gardens, students attend three 90-minute class sessions and a four-hour garden workshop, where they learn to implement a healthy garden and maintain garden infrastructure like compost systems, water harvesting cisterns and healthy spaces for chickens.

Students at Manzo Elementary help take care of the chickens.

But it’s not all about the plants and poultry. As Marston says, “Especially important is a session on managing children in the garden. While the gardens are fun for both younger students and the interns, learning is the ultimate goal: turning outdoor spaces into classrooms for direct experience rather than passive learning.” For the UA interns, it’s about sharing the knowledge they are gaining in their own classrooms and learning to collaborate with community members. 

The younger students gravitate to interns like Idrian and Rachel. Many of the children come from families with no college graduates, and interacting with the interns plants the seed that they, too, could become college students. 

A hiccup in the program occurred when students wanted to taste what they had grown. The Arizona Department of Health Services, which oversees school lunches, was wary of serving kids anything that didn’t originate from standard commercial sources, but they eventually put together a comprehensive list of garden-to-cafeteria requirements that includes an analysis of soil composition, fertilization and water sources. Now the occasional school lunch can include school-grown produce.

The CSGP serves 20 low-income schools in TUSD, two in the Sunnyside Unified School District and three community gardens, all places the UA students can travel to in under 20 minutes. Gardening and Urban Ecology Support for Teachers program coordinator Rebecca 

Renteria takes the teacher-training model to schools that are too far for UA interns to support. 

Through CSGP’s Supporting Environmental Education and Communities program, Jessie Rack trains middle and high school youth and their teachers in the scientific method so they can work with a local scientist on studies. Two schools are collaborating on an agrivoltaic experiment — growing food crops under solar panels, a mainstay on campuses throughout TUSD — with UA biogeography scientist Greg Barron-Gafford. They are investigating whether productivity can be increased while the solar panels are cooled by the plants growing underneath them. 

Another CSGP program, the Green Academy, offers courses for classroom teachers who want to learn more about the science of food production and using gardens for teaching. Teachers receive professional development credit for Green Academy courses.

While the garden program has an undeniable feel-good component, it also provides impressive measurable results. In a 2017 program evaluation by the university’s Southwest Institute for Research on Women, over 90 percent of the interns said it improved their critical thinking and problem analysis skills and increased their capacity for leadership.

The program was equally successful for the younger students, with 91 percent of elementary students reporting that working in the garden made them happier to go to school and led them to want to learn more about plants, water, animals, biodiversity and healthy foods. Sixty-nine percent of elementary students and 72 percent of high school students said that school gardens helped them learn subjects like math, reading and science. And a majority of all students said that the school garden had a positive impact on their emotional well-being, an important factor since research shows that children’s sense of emotional stability is central to their academic success.

As it heads into its 10th year, the CSGP appears to be a winner on all counts: Tucson children learn a range of subjects through direct experience, while UA students learn how to contribute to a better world.