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Programs Teaching Science through Gardening

by School's Out Washington | | Posted under STEM

School’s Out Washington is leading a pilot process to learn more about how Washington’s afterschool programs can offer more and better STEM opportunities. Ten sites across the state are involved in this AYD STEM Pilot. We provided grants of up to $500 for materials they can use in at least one STEM activity per week. Through funding from the Noyce Foundation, each program will also receive assessment, training and coaching on providing high-quality STEM activities over the course of the project, which will run through December.

But what do those STEM activities look like? You might be surprised to learn that STEM learning isn’t just about test tubes and quadcopters. Two programs involved in the AYD STEM Pilot are the Seattle Parks and Recreation community learning center program at Washington Middle School (Seattle) and the Center for Human Services (Shoreline), who are both using gardening as a way to infuse STEM learning into helping youth understand how plants grow and where our food comes from.

The program at Washington Middle School is working with Green Plate Special, a Seattle non-profit whose mission is to “inspire and empower youth to experience food in new ways through gardening, cooking and eating together,” to create a garden right on the school grounds. They currently have 11 students signed up.

8th Grader Irqa Mohamed recently experienced her first session. In this video, it’s clear she’s proud to work in the garden.

Like most kids, the participants in The Center for Human Services’ afterschool program love food. The staff frequently offer cooking projects, but CHS AmeriCorps volunteer Emily Smith wanted to take it further and teach them where their food comes from. Lacking outdoor space for a full garden, she decided to start a simple indoor gardening project.

Students got a choice to plant snap peas, carrots, jalapenos, or cilantro. These plants are still growing indoors at the program, and the kids regularly ask to see their plants and check in on their growth.

The kids have learned a lot about the concepts of plant growth, but they have also learned how to delay gratification, slowly investing in their plants and waiting for their fruit to come. When following up with the kids about how their plants have grown, 5th grader Alejandra, said that the most surprising thing about growing a jalapeno pepper plant is, “it takes a lot of time.”

The project hasn’t been without roadblocks. There are no staff present to watch and care for the plants over the weekend.

“We keep the plants in a sunny area while we are there during the day,” Smith wrote, “but during the weekend we have to lock the plants up in a dark office which has stunted their growth a bit.”

Still, even in the dark, the plants are well watered. On the advice of a UW Botany professor, Smith built a self-watering sub-irrigation system made with recycled inverted 2 liter bottles (pictured).

Plants growing in the soda bottle auto watering system.  Photo courtesy

Plants growing indoors in the soda bottle auto watering system. Photo courtesy Emily Smith

“This was a very accessible and cost-effective idea, as the materials were recycled and easy to acquire and the plants were easy to maintain,” she wrote.

We look forward to learning more about all the programs supported through the AYD STEM pilot and sharing learning and ideas for how to infuse high-quality STEM practices into AYD programs.  To learn more about SOWA’s STEM initiative, visit our website, or contact Krista Galloway at (206) 336-6923.

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