Making Science More Accessible: UA community and school garden program uses plant science to empower students

click to enlarge Making Science More Accessible: UA community and school garden program uses plant science to empower students
(Katya Mendoza)
Stacy Evans asks students to identify differences between produce before sampling them at Manzo Elementary School in Tucson. Evans is an ecology and food literacy program coordinator for the UA CSGP.

Nestled in the historic Barrio Hollywood neighborhood is Ricardo Manzo Elementary School. The campus, which resembles a little oasis amid the beating summer heat, is the “greenest elementary school on the planet.”

Manzo, which is a designated flagship school with the University of Arizona Community and School Garden Program (CSGP), is a national model for an ecological-focused curriculum. The school has served as a Biosphere 2 research site since 2018, allowing scientists and educators to study the effects between solar technology and plant and ecosystem functions.

“What we’re trying to do here is show that you can have both (food and energy) and that it is beneficial for both,” said Greg Barron-Gafford, biogeographer and associate director of CSGP.

Barron-Gafford and his research group have been building the field of agrivoltaics, or the symbiotic relationship between solar panels and crops, for the past eight years. Food grown beneath the shade of a solar panel gets the benefit of water deposits staying in soil longer, as well as the added benefit of consistent “diffuse light,” or indirect sunlight.

In addition to teaching students how to produce food, they learn how plants adapt to different environments or beneath the shade of an overhead solar panel.

Social justice through gardening

The Manzo school garden program is the first of its kind.

As a Title 1 school, Manzo implements hands-on learning in a different way. Its curriculum works to empower its students and staff through project-based learning. 

Manzo math and science initiatives teach students how to become critical thinkers and problem solvers by involving them in gardening, rainwater harvesting and animal care.

The purpose is to demonstrate the importance of real-world applications such as the science behind sustainability or the importance of our food. 

“There’s also a strong social justice component with what we do thinking about food access, closing the achievement gap (and) responding to pandemic trauma,” said Moses Thompson, director of CSGP. “We target the schools that are most under-resourced.”

In TUSD alone, there are over 70 school gardens or “well-spring” gardens. Increased demand for the program shows a larger movement within education investments.

“In response to COVID-19, we feel like school gardens are really significant right now,” Thompson said. “They connect kids with the way that they feel, help them emotionally regulate, and connect them with the natural world.” 

Hired as a school counselor in 2005, Thompson started gardening with students and parents to connect deeper with the surrounding community. The goal was to tap into the neighborhood’s culture and heritage.

The UA CSGP and TUSD partnership not only provides school garden enrichment across the district, the programs are also culturally relevant to the broader community. One of the ways the school garden program does this is through their community-sourced book of knowledge and annual publication, the School Gardener’s Almanac. The gardening handbook contains recipes, medicinal how-tos, information about growing food, planting calendars and more.

With funding from the Sprouts Health Communities Foundation, the program pays for editorial contributions to offer the print project for free. Thompson hopes to see different versions of these almanacs throughout the country, with respective land acknowledgements, food heritage and regional plant gardening.

The bright pink and illustrated almanac included a land acknowledgement to the ancestral lands of the Tohono O’odham people and a map without geographical borders to teach students Tucson’s place in the region. The almanacs are printed in English, Spanish and will soon include the Tohono O’odham language in the 2023 edition.

Thompson said the program seeks to have kids see themselves and their families in big projects like the School Gardener’s Almanac to create a sense of cultural empowerment.

Connecting communities

“It was an opportunity for me to connect with my family who lives in Nogales, Sonora, from talking about recipes for meals that they typically eat to the medicinal uses of nopales or other ingredients (from) my culture and my upbringing,” said Selene Leyva, CSGP program coordinator and food literacy coordinator.

Leyva’s work connects students with food and culinary systems by using locally and school-grown produce. She runs field trips to the food literacy lab on campus.

“The food literacy program is an avenue that we can connect students to the things they’re growing, how they’re growing it and how to prepare it,” Leyva said. “It’s important for the students to be self-sustainable and gain the skills necessary to be able to create their own meals at home and share that knowledge with the community they live with.”

Educators like Daniel Stoner, a fourth-grade teacher at Manzo, said they believe school garden programs help students practice mindfulness, learn about food supply and acquire the confidence to grow their own food.

Stoner said students can still have fresh produce grown in an apartment setting. Topics such as food accessibility, climate change and impacts on food availability are discussed with students in connection to agriculture.

“We work hard for it to be inclusive and accessible and I think that that is one thing that is really important about our program, because as soon as you start getting these like over the top and really nice facilities, sometimes it makes it a little less accessible for people to understand how they can do that in their own classroom,” said Stacey Evans, ecology and food literacy program coordinator.

“We always coordinate with Stacey and Selene so that they have ways of harvesting and using it in the food literacy programs,” Barron-Gafford said.

The UA CSGP practices social and emotional learning in tandem with its “plant-based” curriculum. They place undergraduate and graduate students trained in sustainable agriculture practices with these underserved community and school gardens to bring generations together.

“That aspect of food just creates this magical experience surrounding your senses,” Leyva said.

“We talk a lot about recipes and recipe development and foods that we share with the community. We encourage our students to be in touch with their five senses, whether it’s making something or tasting the food that they created with their peers. I think that’s a special component of our program.” 

Brittney Palomarez, program manager and lead field coordinator of CSGP, assists with the workshop and university class as a teacher’s aide. She said students are confident working in this space.

“On the first day of class we have them make seed germination soil blocks with us and it forces them to work with each other (and) get their hands dirty,” Palomarez said. 

Palomarez is a westside Tucson native and attended private schools for early education. Based on her experience, she said she witnessed many cultural differences between private- and public-school education.

“The way that students feel when they see themselves in their curriculum is you can see that spark happen and it’s so important for their confidence,” Palomarez said. “It just validates their existence.”

Gardening allowed Thompson to usher in a new relationship between families and the school, incorporating their knowledge and expertise into the community school and garden program. 

“We’re trying not to be extractive, especially if we’re going into communities that don’t have the same resources as we do,” Thompson said. In their conscious efforts to not be one of those “outside” organizations that provide community enrichment then leaves, the CSGP’s methodology is focused on the long-term.

National recognition

Other programs and government agencies have started to take notice. The team completed three statewide trainings over the summer, including the 2022 Growing School Gardens Conference in Denver to share their research and the School Gardener’s Almanac.

“There are people who are interested in this work (and) providing outdoor learning spaces who maybe just don’t have the tools yet but they can get on a workshop with us and see that here are some small steps you can take that might give them that foot in the door that they need to get started,” Palomarez said.

Thompson has seen a rise in requests for partnerships, but doesn’t know how sustainable it can be in the long run. Things such as teacher turnover rate, school funding, access to resources or socioeconomic factors could affect the outcome of such projects. 

“We’re having to turn people away because a lot of people want to come to Manzo, a lot of it’s for the gardens. A lot of parents are seeing the value of that type of Montessori mixed in with traditional curriculum,” Stoner said.

“As long as neighborhoods are left behind, we can’t go and work for a year and (then) leave,” Thompson said. “School programs like this can make kids feel connected to their schools and regulate the way they feel connected to other kids.” 

Stoner suggested if the state was going to put more money into schools, they should invest in school gardens, hands-on and applied activities. The school’s agrivoltaics program might also have something to do with the increased interest.

“I was talking with Moses about ways of doing more citizen science and activists with the kids, bringing more science, technology and math into the classroom,” Barron-Gafford said.

Through a grant-funded project, CSGP was able to get 10 teachers in Arizona to develop a curriculum around this technology. Split into half primary and half secondary educators, the idea behind the multi-year cohort model is to collaborate.

No other community and school garden programs are working with this technology yet.

The UA CSGP is the first of its kind on a global scale and every year shows improvement.

“From the first year, kids were making observations but we weren’t always good at keeping track of them. They would take notes back to class, or they would go into their backpack which is like a black hole,” Barron-Gafford said.

The students get to participate in research by collecting data on tablets, using scientific instruments to measure plants and solar panels.

“We don’t teach measurement in the classroom, we have them come out here and do metric system conversions, use temperature guns and understand the safety behind using real scientific instruments,” Stoner said.

“It lets them be a part of some real science,” Palomarez said. Barron-Gafford credited the class he was working with on one of the agrivoltaics research projects he submitted.

Barron-Gafford and his team stress to the students they are setting researchers on their trajectory based on their own research and experiences at Manzo and Rincon High School, another agrivoltaic testing site.

“There’s multiple instances like that where the kids’ questions have changed the trajectory of what we’re doing at the university level,” Barron-Gafford said.

One of the kids’ questions led to a theory of changing the seasonality of food production, growing produce out of season.

The school, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is looking at school gardens having a “buffering” effect against specific mental health impacts. Different environmental factors such as poverty, lack of internet accessibility, and unemployed or sick family members can affect developmental milestones of students from preschool through high school.

“A lot of these communities have food deserts and even with the prices of what’s available (it) is not always the best and not everyone can get to someplace that has fresh gardening growing,” Stoner said. “To be able to grow your own food even as an adult is essential.”

Despite serious concerns and unfounded speculation surrounding agrivoltaics, the new technology is here to stay.

“This is the place we are connected to. The biology, culture, people of the place,” Thompson said.

The UA community and school garden program received a grant on Monday, June 13, from the Community Finance Corporation to grow their regional, state and national footprint. The CSGP program will use the funds to hire a marketing and communications specialist to help establish a brand identity, market the work and develop a strategy for expanding their impacts beyond Tucson, Thompson said in an email.

“CSGP is already doing work on the national stage, but a funded position with a marketing and communications skillset, we’ll be able to further expand our reach,” Thompson said.

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