The National Science Foundation just awarded a $2.9 million grant to a project that would get Seattle students ages 5-9 thinking about complex issues like food security. How? School gardens.

Share story

For Megan Bang, an associate professor at the University of Washington, school gardens are an academic passion, a way to create hands-on science experiences for students, improve their mental health and get them outdoors more often.

For 15 years, she’s worked to make gardens a center of learning and a way to teach responsible environmental decision-making. With the help of a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), she’s now working with Seattle Public Schools and the nonprofit Tilth Alliance to build learning gardens at three schools, as well as creating a new model for an ecosystems curriculum and providing training for teachers.

“We teach kids to understand plant cells and the plant life cycles,” said Bang. “But do we teach them in a way that shows that plant’s relationship to the soil, or to the bugs?”

Many of Seattle’s public schools already have gardens, but most are funded by PTAs, and not all are used as part of classroom lessons, said MaryMargaret Welch, science program manager at Seattle Public Schools.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

The new, NSF-funded project, which has a four-year timeline, will focus on kindergarten through third-grade classrooms at Viewlands, Leschi and Maple elementary schools. The schools were chosen because they have significant percentages of low-income students.

In Bang’s view, school gardens can encourage students to think critically about issues like water consumption, biodiversity and energy usage — based on observations they’ve made in the field, like real scientists. For example, students at the three schools may be given the opportunity to design their own gardens based on factors like weather patterns and soil-plant interactions.

“Monitoring real-world resources is complicated, and they’re not easily observable because they’re interconnected. Part of what I’m after is having a citizenry that’s capable of engaging in those real 21st-century problems, ” said Bang.

Parents and teachers will help design the garden curriculum at each of the three schools.

Combining forces with the larger community is what the grant team hopes will give the project some continuity and buy-in, as well as cultural relevance.

“Garden education is kind of associated with white, middle-class folks. But there are types of gardens that aren’t based in Western European traditions,” said Sharon Siehl, the Youth Education director for Tilth Alliance, the Seattle-based organic urban gardening nonprofit that’s helping with the project.

As she’s done in past projects, Bang said she plans on incorporating cultural context into the garden lessons, such as helping students understand methods of cultivation among indigenous populations.

The new project is one of many recent efforts to help Seattle schools adapt to a new set of national science standards, which call for teaching science in a way that fosters student interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

When the four years are up, the team hopes they’ll have enough research to make a case for expanding the model to all Seattle schools.