School Garden Program Takes Research to Next Level
Research shows that a school garden is a perfect tool to provide hands on learning experiences for any academic subject. Fourth graders learn about science through the life cycles of plants and first graders gain knowledge and firsthand experience of how nutritious foods can fuel their body by tasting fruits and vegetables that they've helped grow and harvest. Elementary schools in Encinitas, like Ocean Knoll and Mission Estancia, have seen this first hand.
Now imagine taking the initiative of hands-on education through school gardens further and developing an on-site laboratory on 10 acres of land that students throughout a district can attend for experiential learning in the areas of design, research, engineering, math and science. That is the vision behind the Encinitas Union School District's Farm Lab.
Let's step back a few years to see how this vision became a reality. The stars were perfectly aligned for the Encinitas Union School District to launch the aggressive initiative to turn a 10-acre site on Quail Gardens Road in Encinitas into a working Farm Lab. The district already owned the plot of land—they were reserving it for a school site—but enrollment projections showed there wouldn't be enough students in the district to justify another school.
A $60,000-per-year tax bill was looming if the land did not go into development. The acreage was sandwiched between a cluster of agriculturally and historically rich community organizations such as Leichtag Foundation, Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA, San Diego Botanic Garden, San Dieguito Heritage Museum and Seacrest Village. However, the most important factor for turning this vision into a reality is not circumstantial. It stems from an expectation that starts with EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird and the school board and permeates throughout the district to faculty and parents, that educating children needs to be about addressing the whole child in an engaging and interactive way.
Providing students with an on-site laboratory is well-aligned with the latest standards set out by the California State Board of Education. In August 2010, the California State Board of Education adopted a new set of standards called the California Common Core State Standards. Unlike traditional standards, the Common Core State Standards take learning beyond the skills acquisition level, requiring students to also analyze, explain and apply new learning.
"... If we look at the Common Core State Standards and examine the number of times certain words appear, we notice that research appears 132 times. This, coupled with our district's wellness initiatives, makes Farm Lab the perfect setting to experience authentic application of all learning around science and nutrition..." explains Assistant Superintendent Dr. Leighangela Brady.
Transforming the land into an outdoor educational space is a big project. That's why the district has brought on Healthy Day Partners, a nonprofit started by two Encinitas District parents, to help manage and drive the initiative.
On site the lab is currently equipped with portable classrooms in the area designated an educational center. But, there is much more to come—the master plan includes a kitchen with solar ovens harnessing the sun's energy, a maker's lab and an area for students to study wildlife and record their observations.
Mim Michelove is cofounder of Healthy Day Partners which developed and managed this project. Michelove has now been appointed director of Farm Lab by the Encinitas Union School District. She estimates that it will cost approximately $1 million in capital expenditures and $300,000 a year in continued annual expenses depending on the number of students who attend annually and how the lab is staffed. The Encinitas Union School District is focused on seeking corporate sponsorships, grant funds and donations to build out the ongoing educational program.
"The Farm Lab is to provide students with educational experiences that demonstrate the interconnectedness of nutrition, agriculture and ecology. Through hands on lessons in the field and in food and science labs, students will develop a rich understanding of the connection between our actions and our health, economy and environment," Michelove believes.
Early field trips welcomed students to become "expert consultants" and offer their insight and opinion on the relevance and appeal of the preliminary designs of the Farm Lab. Dr. Brady explains that students will have the opportunity to visit the San Diego Botanic Garden and the Leichtag Ranch, two locations that share mutual goals of environmental education. They will act as field researchers and then combine the knowledge they've gained with the existing plans for Farm Lab to present and pitch their ideas to the district representatives, community members and potential funders. Game elements such as "boosters", "badges" and "time elements" will keep students engaged on tasks throughout the day. Final awards will be given based on judges' feedback for most innovative and best overall.
It sounds like these field trips are rich in research, engagement and implementation; a true exercise in what Common Core State Standards is all about. With the development of Farm Lab, The Encinitas Union School District is proving not only the benefits of school gardens, but that outdoor learning centers can thrive and become an instrumental part of a district's standard curriculum.