Through direct engagement in a garden space, The Nature Conservancy is hoping to better prepare youth with the tools needed to protect the environment and their local communities.
By Brigitte Griswold, Director of Youth Programs, The Nature Conservancy
School garden programs have been steadily increasing in urban areas across the country—and for good reasons. From the obvious health benefits that come with growing fresh produce, to a growing body of research that suggests gardening reduces student stress levels and symptoms of ADHD, it’s no wonder gardens are trending long after Michelle Obama built the White House garden to inspire a national dialogue around healthy eating.
School gardens directly connect students to the outdoors and also offer avenues for children to directly experience the mysteries of nature where they spend the bulk of their day, while taking ownership of improving their communities and the nature we depend on for food, clean air, and water. While much of the growth in gardening focuses on food production, more and more schools are utilizing gardens to achieve additional outcomes such as stormwater collection, increasing pollinator populations, and mitigating against heat island effect.
But gardens have even more potential to address another major challenge facing America in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. American youth are losing a competitive advantage in math and science while the rest of the world outpaces them. Some argue this will have severe implications for the future because our knowledge capital, which drives innovation and growth, will be at risk. School gardens can play an important role in addressing this gap. In fact, some studies are now demonstrating that school gardening programs can directly boost students’ scores on science achievement tests.
Today, as teachers tackle strategies to align their curriculum with the new Next Generation Science Standards, gardens can play a critical role in empowering the next generation of scientists and engineers. The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Works Everywhere Program, is hoping to make it easy for teachers to do just that by combining free, online lessons and curricula on the science of nature in the garden with school grants for students to build and maintain their own garden. The model combines project-based learning with curriculum that teaches science using the garden as an outdoor-learning lab. Students can also track, measure, and report on their conservation and community impact online and share their progress with other schools across the country. With support from Lowes and CSX, the program is currently in six cities and projected to grow to serve additional urban schools across the nation in the coming year.
At the end of the day, conservationists are also doing this work to inspire the next generation to care for and protect nature. At their core, gardens model conservation science on a relatable and accessible scale. Through direct engagement in a garden space, combined with related science curriculum, we’re hoping to better prepare youth with the knowledge, interest, and opportunity to become the scientists and engineers who hold the future health of the planet, and the health of our communities, in their hands.