School gardens are outgrowing science education research

A February conference will boost garden-based science teaching with papers, multimedia and an ecoregion-focused almanac.

 Project title 
The School Gardeners’ Southwest Desert Almanac: A conference for supporting, sustaining and spreading garden-based science teaching

 Award amount 

 Grant effective dates 
August 15, 2019July 31, 2020

 Principal investigator(s) 
Steven Zuiker

 Direct sponsor 
National Science Foundation

The challenge

A recent nationwide survey of schools documented a 42-percent growth in school gardens from 2013–15. Garden-based science teaching is increasingly popular because it integrates formal and informal learning, allows for teaching a range of science topics — soil science, ecology, botany — and creates opportunities to make those topics culturally relevant. Yet while the number of students encountering GBST is increasing, most of the research surrounding it addresses the implementation of school gardens in the context of health and nutrition interventions rather than science instruction. Studies that do emphasize science instruction in GBST do not characterize specific practices. Compounding the challenge of creating generalized GBST instructional resources are local and regional variations in climate, soil composition and geography. The result is a lack of recent and relevant research regarding effective GBST instructional methods.

The approach

The project addresses the challenge of creating relevant GBST instruction as an opportunity for innovation among researchers and practitioners who will collaborate to:

  • Describe and characterize effective GBST
  • Analyze enduring problems of practice and the range of contexts in which they occur
  • Advance place-based, culturally responsive instructional practices that enlist local communities and ecologies as resources
  • Document the materials, resources, tasks and other design features enlisted to teach with gardens in order to develop theoretical and design conjectures about how GBST organizes opportunities to learn.

Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the University of Arizona are organizing a three-day event to improve and expand how educators use gardens to teach science in K–8 schools. Up to 50 participants, both invited and competitively advanced, will attend the School Gardeners’ Southwest Desert Almanac Conference, Feb. 5–7, 2020. The conference will engage participants in activities before, during and after the event to develop a better understanding of the scale and scope of GBST. They will also be provided access to a case library of innovative pedagogical practices with curricular resources, a design-based research agenda anchored to these practices and resources, and audience-specific papers. These materials will be made available through an online almanac.

Findings & impact

Funding for this project continues through July 2020. Deliverables shared on the project website — — include:

  • Summary papers for diverse audiences interested in school garden teaching
  • Multimedia case library
  • Ecoregion-focused almanac with GBST resources