Campus Garden cultivates public school partnerships and STEM communities

School children at Rex Rennert Elementary School prepare garden journals
School children at Rex Rennert Elementary School prepare garden journals

Amidst the buzzing of honeybees and native insect pollinators, the flashy colors of wildflowers and the tidy beds of carefully tended vegetables, you’ll find dedicated UNC Pembroke students hard at work in the Campus Garden & Apiary.  Among this cadre of students are James Locklear, Abigail Canela, and Kinsley Adams.  As interns, the garden has given each of them an outdoor education and research experience.  In turn, they are sharing their knowledge, labor, and their love for gardening with local public schools. 

Indeed, thanks to these students and their Biology faculty mentors Drs. Rita Hagevik and Kaitlin Campbell, the grassy lawns of four elementary schools have been transformed into outdoor classrooms -- gardens alive with vegetables, wildflowers, herbs, and pollinators.  Inside these outdoor classrooms, students become excited about science.  They learn about the natural world, and these early hands-on experiences just might encourage them to pursue careers in STEM.  As Hagevik noted, “Unfortunately, today’s youth have become disconnected from their environment for many reasons.  In elementary school, one of the major topics is life cycles, and gardens are perfect places to study life cycles – bees and butterflies, moths and other pollinators, and other animals and plants. When you use gardens to teach science, you can see how all these cycles you study actually happen.”  

For several years, the Campus Garden & Apiary has been an outdoor classroom for Hagevik’s Kids in the Garden (KIG) Program, a STEM program for middle and high school students funded by the Burroughs-Wellcome Foundation SSEP program. After Duke Energy Foundation offered to sponsor STEM outreach at UNCP, the Advancement Office approached Hagevik for ideas. Inspired by her own KIG Program, Hagevik collaborated with Dr. Irina Falls (School of Education) on two “Powerful Communities” grant proposals to create public school gardens that would teach STEM. Duke Energy awarded each proposal $20,000. The first teacher workshop to launch the gardens was held in January 2020, and work on gardens began immediately.  Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic halted construction until last spring.

Today, sustainable gardens at the four elementary schools (Rex-Rennert, Jane Hargrave, St. Pauls, and Magnolia) include a greenhouse, raised beds, compost bins, rain barrels, a native bee home, a shed and equipment, and a weather station. Using materials purchased with grant funds, Locklear spearheaded the construction of greenhouses and gardens at the schools, and Canela and Adams pitched in to set up flower beds, install plants, and to teach school children how to plant. Hagevik offered professional development on garden-based learning in STEM and guided the sustainable organic gardens, compliant with state education mandates.  She also assumed management of the grants and supervision of garden interns. Campbell created classroom lessons based on pollinator life cycles, and informed by her own pollinator research, she selected plants for use in the gardens.  Irina Falls fostered professional development, including lesson plans for the teachers.  Gale Sampson of the UNCP Biology Department managed purchases and paperwork.

The outdoor classrooms are having a greater impact than ever expected.  Hagevik commented, “we started with the goal of helping teachers to give students authentic science.  Teachers realized that school gardens are more than just teaching science; they are about forming communities.  They are as much as about community building as they are about teaching science.”  

The schools designed their own vegetable beds using companion plantings and square foot garden techniques, and they were each required to have a pollinator garden and Three Sisters (squash, beans, and corn) garden.  Parents contributed seeds and vegetable plants, and science teachers and other school staff became immersed in garden activities. Locklear said, “with greenhouses and garden beds, students learn food sustainability along with multiple science applications and experiences.  Introducing food sustainability practices also helps expose topics such as pollinators and pollinator conservation.  Conservation practices in primary and secondary [school] students would also help get students more comfortable with science practices and improve scientific knowledge as well.  These types of practices bring people together to focus on solving problems where everyone's input counts.  [These practices] can bring people together, all races, all nationalities. All the four schools are multiracial and mixed races, and they bring different cultures. Giving students a chance to learn about research at an early age is very important as well, especially in low-income public-school systems.  From these aspects, a way to bring schools and communities together and increase the love for the environment and each other is through gardening and conservation practices."

Canela volunteered her Saturday mornings to work in the gardens at Jane Hargrave Elementary School last summer.  She said the outdoor classrooms, “transformed students and parents, who also volunteered to come in on weekends and to take care of the garden.”  Saturdays were targeted for a Migrant Education Program, spearheaded by Serilda Goodwin (Migrant Education Coordinator for Public Schools of Robeson County).  The program provided educational resources for families of migrant workers (many of whom speak Spanish) and offered them assistance in overcoming language barriers.  According to Canela, the program and outdoor classrooms, “encouraged kids to grow their own food, and knowledge of growing their own foods is something they can take home.  It facilitated healthy relationships between kids and their food.  It’s something fun for kids to do, especially with the pandemic and kids having to stay at home for almost a year.  That’s a long time to stay away from school.  And it’s important for kids to be themselves outside.”    

Amidst another year challenged by the COVID pandemic, it’s encouraging that science education is alive in outdoor classrooms, and these classrooms are having positive impacts on school children. Moreover, UNCP garden interns helped bring these classrooms to life.  Locklear summed it up by saying, “When they [school children] put in plants, it was beautiful.  Seeing the smiles on their faces.  When you can see the joy in it, that helps everyone.”  

James Locklear is completing a MA Science degree in Biology.  Abigail Canela is completing a BS degree in Chemistry and Environmental Studies, and Kinsley Adams in completing a BS degree in Biology.