Revolutionizing Learning through School Garden Programs

Revolutionizing Learning Through School Garden Programs

Thu 29 Nov 2012

Story by Jim Rye and Anne Lupo

This is a story of a school that wanted to “revolutionize” our way of teaching, learning, and eating!

North Elementary is located in Morgantown, West Virginia, and comprised of about 750 students Pre-K through 5th grade. Our school is one of the most diverse in the state, with over 45 languages spoken by students who represent close to 50 countries.

Our garden journey started with 7 teachers from North Elementary, 2 professors from West Virginia University (WVU), 11 WVU prospective teachers, about 20 families, and many eager students. The idea was to introduce students to hands-on science and mathematics instruction while promoting healthy lifestyles. Back in 2010, we sat next to our WVU partners and wrote a grant proposal to Lowes (Toolbox for Education) for $5,000 to help fund our garden project. Lucky us, we received funding and construction of Panther Pride Garden began in the Spring of 2011.

We joined forces with our community technical education center and extension services and by late May we had installed 13 raised beds, which were planted by students with the vegetable seedlings that were previously germinated through indoor grow lights. See highlights of our first year of garden-based learning in the July-August 2012 issue of the journal, TEACHING Exceptional Children (“Elementary School Garden Programs Enhance Science Education for All Learners”).

Incorporating Cooking Activities into Lessons

Lessons are focused on math, science, reading, writing, and health. Teachers encourage students to experience the produce by incorporating cooking activities into their lessons. When you walk through our halls don’t be surprised if you see students eating cooked turnips, fresh salsa, squash, or a plate of green beans. Students also might sneak a quick tomato snack during recess.

The excitement of the gardens has been contagious! We have grown from 7 to 25 teachers implementing garden-based learning in their classrooms the gardens on school grounds (current map of school gardens). The best part about this style of learning is our students have a say! That’s right, teachers survey the class to determine what the children are interested in learning. Based on the response, lessons are designed, planting starts and investigation begins. Students are literally starting from the ground up and learning about the process of growing healthy food.

From Snack Beans to Heirloom Tomatoes…

We are planting everything from snake beans to black radishes to varieties of lettuce to heirloom tomatoes– you name it, we may have it! We’d probably win the contest for world’s longest trombone zucchini…if there was such a competition!

We were fortunate enough to have a presence at our local farmer’s market. It’s amazing how a few cute kids can draw in a crowd. Our students learned the value of bundling, pricing, marketing and selling produce at the market. At the farmers market, we even had a student demonstration of our indoor EarthBoxes and grow stations.

This year, teachers are initiating projects with their students such as growing a winter harvest and investigating which types of beans will produce the most produce! Another project is trying to determine if strawberries can be grown all year long! Findings to date in the classrooms suggest that the answer will be yes!

An interview with teachers who are facilitating the “strawberry” project reveals how these teachers integrate garden-based learning into all disciplines.

Garden-based learning also includes developing understandings about decomposers and how we can use food waste to grow tomorrow’s food! Students have become buddies with over 25,000 worms hosted in our vermicomposting bins across several classrooms and additionally, our cafeteria kitchen is supplying us with veggie and fruit scraps for our outside compost bins. We’ve even started a relationship with the nearby McDonalds and Black Bear Restaurants to collect coffee grounds and unused produce.

You might wonder how our garden gets tended in the summer. About 20 families of students signed up to be caretakers the first summer, and extension services “Master Gardeners” provided them with guidance. More than three times that many families volunteered during Summer of 2012, getting their hands dirty and joining us in our endeavor to promote healthy lifestyles!

We are continuing our “revolution” everyday! Next up for North will be our WORLD garden! We will be planting a variety of fruits, vegetables and plants indigenous to the countries represented at our school! How exciting to introduce young palates to international flavor! This project begins Spring of 2013!

About the author:Dr. Jim Rye is a faculty member at WVU teaching Science Education and the brains behind North’s gardens having wanted to introduce his students to hands-on learning. Jim is now a collaborative faculty and resident at North Elementary. Anne Lupo is the Assistant Principal at North Elementary, parent to a first grade student and is thrilled to see experiential learning happening throughout the building as promoting healthy food while exposing children to project-based learning is right up her ally! Please feel free to contact Jim or Anne if you have any questions/comments at: and


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