Students at learning garden.

Despite the growing awareness of socio-ecological challenges facing humans in the 21st century, science learning still mostly takes place inside the classroom, disconnected from the natural world.

The University of Washington College of Education, Tilth Alliance and Seattle Public Schools are partnering to change this status quo and create more culturally and community relevant, field-based learning opportunities for students. Funded by a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project will build outdoor learning gardens and draw upon local communities and green spaces at several Seattle schools while developing a robust curriculum for K-3 educators to engage students in complex ecological reasoning and decision-making.

Megan Bang, associate professor of education and principal investigator for the project, said immersing students in outdoor, field-based science learning is a critical and under-utilized strategy for preparing students to wrestle with issues of socio-ecological justice such as food sustainability and water usage. 

“Much of science learning today is not geared towards deep engagement with our most pressing issues, such as food security,” Bang said. “Our goal is to increase students’ ability to engage in observation, inference and, ultimately, decision-making in culturally and community specific ways.”

The project is kicking off at Viewlands, Leschi and Maple elementary schools this summer. Sustainable gardens will be built at each site, with a focus on:

  1. food gardens for humans and animals,
  2. water gardens,
  3. restoration and permagardens, and
  4. climate indicator gardens.

At the same time, teachers, researchers, garden coordinators, families and school administrators will work together to build, test and refine an educational model that reflects the rigorous Next Generation Science Standards adopted by Washington state. Learning units will be created for each grade level from kindergarten through 3rd grade, focusing on interactions between natural phenomena and human communities.

“At Tilth Alliance we teach thousands of children each year in garden education,” explained Sharon Siehl, Tilth Alliance’s director of community youth education. “On a daily basis we see a huge need, and an enormous opportunity, to engage children in learning about the source of food and resource conservation. The National Science Foundation grant and partnerships with University of Washington College of Education and Seattle Public Schools provide a wonderful opportunity to better utilize gardens as science-based outdoor learning laboratories for all schools. This research grant will help provide valuable information about what students learn in the garden, and bring wonderful resources together that will benefit children, teachers and communities.”

While school gardens aren’t new, Bang said their learning potential is largely untapped.

California, for example, passed state-wide legislation to create school gardens. Yet the effort has fallen short of its intended impacts thus far. Bang suggests that, in part, there is a need to expand the ways outdoor field-based learning is conceptualized and enacted in order to deepen learning opportunities.

“We want to reenvision how these outdoor spaces, like learning gardens and local green spaces, can be used by educators and communities,” Bang said. “Our aim is to create a strong foundation of support for students to participate in meaningful field-based learning.”

Throughout the project, Bang, co-principal investigator Carrie Tzou (associate professor of education at UW Bothell) and other researchers will study effective practices for field-based science education and the impact on student learning. During 2020-21, the project team will launch a year-long pilot professional development program for educators at five additional schools to help scale the educational model across Seattle Public Schools.

Over the course of the four-year grant, a project of the College's Institute for Science and Math Education, up to 60 teachers and 1,000 students will take part in learning garden activities.

“This grant provides some of our most vulnerable youth with an opportunity to collaborate with community partners, University of Washington and Tilth Alliance, to provide authentic, place-based learning,” said MaryMargaret Welch, science program manager for Seattle Public Schools. “We believe the garden project will engage our youth in relevant field studies that will help them see the relevance of science in their life.”

At the conclusion of the grant, Tilth Alliance and its professional garden educators association will support Seattle educators in sustaining the educational model, and the project team is looking to engage additional community-based organizations in learning activities.

“There’s tremendous potential in making this type of field-based investigation literally relevant to students’ daily lives by embedding it in their communities,” Bang said. “We expect to learn a lot about how culture, identity, motivation and engagement impact kids’ interest in science when it’s based in their own neighborhoods, families and communities.”

About Tilth Alliance

Through innovative educational programs, Tilth Alliance teaches people of all ages how to grow and eat nutritious food in a way that regenerates healthy ecosystems. They use gardens, farms and kitchens as classrooms to offer hands-on learning experiences that re-connect people to nutritious food, local farmers and the Earth. Tilth Alliance also offers training and resources to help Washington state farmers be economically successful and use sustainable practices, which provides communities with local food security and land stewardship. They want everyone to be able to eat healthy, nutritious food, every day, at every meal.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications