Island Updates

Science as service: learning through gardening

Guest blog post by Science Educator Rachel Kimpton

On September 24, eight high school students from Fryeburg Academy’s AP Environmental Science course journeyed to Hurricane for a weekend trip. Their teacher, John Urgese, tries to schedule experiential field trips at the beginning of the school year so that his classroom lessons can build on those real world experiences of science in action. Trying to plan a meaningful lesson for such a compact amount of time is quite challenging, since that time also includes students adjusting to their new surroundings and comprehend their new “classroom.” To best utilize their short trip, I designed an applied science lesson that would function as a community service project: redesigning one of our garden plots into a pollinator garden.

I have been looking for the perfect opportunity to teach with gardening since I came out to the island in June. My own graduate research focused on gardening as a teaching method, as gardens themselves are a fascinating intersection of art, science, history, and culture all at once, to name only a few disciplines. I’m personally interested in gardens as classrooms because the act of gardening makes textbook concepts tangible, accessible, and delightful.

Fryeburg’s trip was built around phenology, the study of cyclic changes over time, or as the
National Phenology Network so aptly describes, the study of “Nature’s calendar - when cherry trees bloom, when a robin builds its nest, and when leaves turn color in the fall.” The goal of getting their hands literally in the dirt was to directly apply their understandings of species interdependence and various changes that occur over the course of an organism’s life. We discussed how animals, plants, bacteria, and even fungi all interact and depend on each other in order to survive, and how small changes in climate can have drastic impacts.

It’s not exactly possible to study all of the changes that occur throughout the seasons or throughout an organism’s entire life just within 24 hours. Instead, we examined the snapshot of changes happening within the first few days of autumn. We went for a hike around the perimeter of the island, taking note of and sketching the various phenophases of plants, animals, and fungi that we saw along the way. The beginning of autumn is actually a fantastic time to discuss cyclic changes: the leaves on our few deciduous trees are starting to change and fall, flowers are blooming for the last time or releasing their seeds, and the sun makes its way quickly across the sky to set late in the afternoon.

One of the easiest interdependence networks to think about takes place within a garden and is one with which we are all familiar: FOOD! Many different living and nonliving factors contribute to the food that ends up on our plates every day. We concluded our hike at one of the island’s garden plots to harvest plants in their “reproductive” phenophases so that we could enjoy them for dinner. We made a huge delicious salad, a buttery roasted spaghetti squash, and fresh pressed apple cider with Hurricane’s own apples (!), all of which were perfect accompaniments for our sunset picnic.

The next morning, we reviewed the various organisms we spotted on our hike around the island. We also noted a very important organism we noticed in the process of gathering some of the season’s last tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and leafy greens the previous day: bumblebees! Bumblebees are part of a larger group of organisms known as pollinators, which make more than 75% of the world’s food possible. However, many manmade factors threaten pollinator species with extinction, including intensive industrial agricultural practices and widespread pesticide use. The purpose of our garden design was to provide food for the island’s pollinators with plants that would bloom throughout the year. 

The students cross-referenced regional pollinator guides with seed packets to create an excellent, diverse planting plan with staggered blooms. With shovels in hand, we took a short hike to the south end of the island to measure the proposed plot. I’ve had my eye on this plot since June, as a lot of weeds and a very proud catmint plant dominate (and underutilize) the space. Once we returned to the classroom, the students broke up into groups to finish our seasonal planting plan, and to create a garden map of the plants they intended to use based on a sample map developed by the Portland Pollinator Partnership.

What can we actually accomplish during a 24 hour trip that resonates with the students? It turns out quite a lot! It was exciting to watch students with different levels of gardening experience and cultural knowledge collaborate to create such a comprehensive plan. The students had a blast experiencing environmental biology so directly, from our encounters with different organisms around the island to tasting the bounty that a long growing season provides (with help from our amazing pollinators)!. This program ended up being a dream come true for me, as I have spent the last couple years of my life examining the power of learning that exists within gardens. Although we didn’t actually get seeds in the ground, this was an incredible first step towards making the island more pollinator friendly while participating in larger discourses of sustainability.

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