Berkeley - As gardens sprout in K-12 schoolyards around the country, a small group of educators at the University of California, Berkeley, is intent on making sure they nourish the mind as well as the body.
"We're trying to make the school garden an integral and exciting part of the school's classroom curriculum," said Jennifer Meux White, associate director for education of the UC Botanical Garden who specializes in science education. "The garden can be a rich learning experience."
White and her colleagues this week received a $500,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to take curricula they have developed around school gardens, tested at the botanical garden and schools throughout California, and re-tool them for teachers around the nation.
The grant is one of 29 announced this week by the institute to science museums, nature centers, aquariums, zoos and other informal science education centers across the country. Together, the grants total $12 million. Among the recipients is UC Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology, which received $390,000 to improve the teaching of evolution.
In 1995, California's state school superintendent Delaine Eastin mandated "a garden in every school" to "create opportunities for our children to discover fresh food, make healthier food choices, and become better nourished," according to the Web site of the California Department of Education. Yet, little money was devoted to helping teachers make the best use of them, White said.
"After the initial burst of enthusiasm, gardens would often languish and die because they had not become an integral part of the curriculum," she said.
In 1997, White received a $275,000 grant from HHMI to begin developing tools for classroom teachers to use in conjunction with the gardens. Four years later, two curricula have been developed, tested by more than 4,000 students, and today are being used by many teachers across the state. One, "Botany on Your Plate," brings biological and cultural concepts into a series of activities and discussions of what we eat. The second, "California Habitats Alive!," is centered around plant diversity.
The new grant will pay for publishing and distributing the curricula, training teachers and parents, and adapting the curricula to states other than California.
"This is a movement all across the country," White said. "More and more evidence shows that getting children out of the classroom is a powerful learning strategy that takes advantage of their enthusiasm and interest. Out of doors, a lot of new observations and questions come up that reinforce and add to the lessons."
Rebecca Burke, a sixth grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, has been using gardens in her classes for some five years, but had been putting together her own teaching materials and creating her own projects. After working with White for two years, she is enthused about the ideas and concepts of the new curricula.
"Gardening is pretty infectious - it's easy to reach kids through such activities," Burke said. "What's really great about Jenny's curriculum is that it helps me teach difficult concepts in ecology. It's hard for kids to understand how it's all connected, concepts like biodiversity and different habitats."
Burke's middle school is known for its "edible schoolyard" supported by famed restaurateur Alice Waters. But the curriculum works for schools not so well endowed - asphalt schools such as Lazear Elementary School in Oakland, where White has worked with second-grade teachers, including Isabelle Padilla, to create a raised bed and wine barrel garden.
"We try to help each school have a garden they can support," White said.
At Lazear, the cultural aspects of food and plants are particularly appealing to the primarily Spanish-speaking children. White was able to obtain from the UC Botanical Garden two seedlings of the sacred tree of Mexico - the hand-flower tree, flor de la manita, revered by the Aztecs and used in medicines for relieving pain and inflammation - for the kids to plant and care for.
She also is providing mulberry trees to feed silk worms used in a popular classroom teaching unit.
"We encourage schools to plant not just any plant, but to ask the faculty, community and families what they would like to grow," she said. "These gardens won't survive without teacher, community and parent support."
HHMI, though primarily devoted to funding medical research, also supports efforts to strengthen science literacy and enhance science education through grants for science education programs originating outside the traditional elementary or secondary school setting.