Duke Energy Foundation, UNCP partnership connects elementary students with the earth

Campus Gardens
UNCP students and faculty are volunteering to build gardens at local elementary schools

Local elementary school students are becoming budding gardeners thanks to an ongoing collaboration between UNC Pembroke, Duke Energy Foundation and the Public Schools of Robeson County.

Campus gardens are being constructed at St. Pauls Elementary School and the Migrant Education Community Teaching Garden located at the county schools’ central office. UNCP faculty and students partner with the schools to create the gardens, which consist of plant beds, a shed and a greenhouse.

The project is being funded by a $20,000 Powerful Communities grant from Duke Energy Foundation. Powerful Communities: K-12 Education grants support programs that prevent summer reading loss while also advancing energy, engineering and environmental education.

UNCP also received the Powerful Communities grant two years ago, which was used to build school gardens at Magnolia and Rex Rennert elementary schools. The funds are intended to support STEM educational activities and training for regional students and educators.

“Through these projects, we are able to teach students about biodiversity and sustainability,” said Dr. Rita Hagevik, a professor of biology at UNCP. “The goal is to engage more minority K-12 students in STEM-related activities.”

Elementary school students paired with UNCP students and faculty on each campus to build six flower beds and later helped plant herbs, wildflowers, and vegetables, including pumpkins, squash, beans, corn, heirloom tomatoes, herbs and peppers. Students also complete grade-appropriate curricula on garden, teaching them about the environment. The use of solar-powered greenhouses helps students learn about energy.

“We were in full swing, then the pandemic hit and shut everything down,” Hagevik said. “After a year of staring at the computers while remote learning, we were excited to begin offering fun activities again this year.”

Hagevik and fellow faculty members Drs. Irina Falls, Kaitlin Campbell, Martin Farley and Bryan Sales, have been offering workshops and working closely with the staff and students at the schools.

In addition to funding the school gardens, UNCP has used the Powerful Communities grant funds to support the North Carolina Region 4 Science & Engineering Fair and to provide workshops on how to teach engineering to middle and high school students.

“The students are enjoying working alongside our undergraduate and graduate students. It’s a new and exciting learning experience for them,” Hagevik said.