A group of excited 9- and 10-year-olds gathered around extension office agriculture agent Kami Marsh at Wooster Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon and stared at the rectangular, plastic tub filled with dirt she used to explain what their garden will be like.
Marsh drew her finger across the soil and talked about how far apart plants need to be planted. Corn plants need 12 inches between them, she said. The plant also needs to be planted in at least two rows, she said. The students spend a few seconds figuring out how big their garden will be — 800 square feet. Then they figure out that, based on their garden’s dimensions, corn would take up most of their garden space. They had plans for other vegetables.
“Doing your math and doing your calculations and measuring off right is really, really important, right?” the students’ teacher Jolene Weldon said.
The students nod.
Wooster is trying out a program that combines gardening with lessons in math and science for fourth graders. The program — using a Farm Bureau grant and collaborating with a farmer and the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service through the Division of Agriculture — is meant to entice students to eat healthy and love math and sciences. The school started the program several years ago, but this school year is the first time the school and extension service has pushed for a more in-depth experience for students. This year agents come to visit students every other Wednesday for a slew of hands-on learning lessons and even healthily prepared recipes, Weldon said.
“Every time they come they do something hands on and interactive with it,” Weldon said.
The lessons, which include tasting new fruits and vegetables, are the kind of healthy-learning initiative that Common Core recommends, said Phyllis Stewart, state education department spokesman. The state implemented Common Core, new learning standards that stress conceptual understanding and application, this past school year, according to the Arkansas Common Core website and Weldon. What Wooster is doing is the kind of thing the department supports, she said.
From the garden and preparing for the garden, students learned about pests and fertilizer, about how clouds make rain, about climate and conservation. Weldon plans to collect rainwater to use to water the garden, she said. Later, Weldon plans to use the lesson in word problems. Sometimes students make up their own math problems for each other, she said.
On Wednesday, students learned that planting certain vegetables close together can mean a hybrid plant. They learned about animals that might eat their vegetables, like deer.
“Deers are nice,” Ethan Smith, 10.
“Not if they are eating your food!” said Hunter Hoffman, 9.
Hands on in the garden
Even if Common Core wasn’t being implemented, Weldon would have wanted to expand her garden program, she said.
“It helps them see where they actually might use this stuff,” Weldon said.
Schoolchildren in the past would have sat at desks and listened to a teacher. But in Weldon’s class students have a kit that shows the rain cycle and chicken eggs incubating. They learn hands on.
All math and science fourth graders — all 82 students — get to participate in a garden about to be tilled and planted by Wednesday.
That garden represents a learning tool, Weldon said. Students will measure with different tools, plot what they want to grow and tend plants, she said.
Last year, Weldon had a garden for the students, but it died during the summer drought, she said. That’s where the rainwater will come in handy, she said.
Marsh said the extension service agents weren’t as involved all school year as they are this year. This year, for the first time, Melanie Malone, a county extension agent who concentrates on family and consumer science, has come with Marsh. Primarily, she works with the children in nutrition, Malone said.
“We want to teach kids that eating healthy foods taste good,” Malone said. “We really try to tie everything we do (into a lesson) and tie it into real life experience.”
Around Christmas, Malone made smoothies out of spinach and strawberries. The children were surprised they liked it. They talked about it repeatedly Wednesday.
Malone and Marsh visit other schools in Faulkner County, but only Wooster Elementary has them come out routinely over a school year, they said. They want more schools to do what Wooster Elementary does, they said. The children respond, they said.
“They are like craving this information,” Marsh said. “They are asking so many questions.”
On Wednesday, students peppering Marsh with questions became so loud that Weldon called out her catch phrase for calming them.
“Wooster!” she said.
“Way,” the students said.
“Way, way, way,” they answered.
“I know it’s exciting but you have to calm down and be respectful,” Weldon said.
Yummy veggie goodness
“It was awesome,” Ethan said after Marsh and Malone left the classroom.
Two adults who know about science and gardening came to talk to him about his favorite subject— science? Great. He listed everything he’d learned Wednesday. He talked about pests, fertilizer and soil content. Planting plants too close together is bad, but so is too far apart, he said. He loved the idea of planting something he likes in the garden, like strawberries or rosemary.
“You can pick stuff, you know, off the vine, you know,” he said.
While Ethan talked about the science behind gardening, some students talked more about the food.
“When it’s time to harvest, we have to pick it when it’s nice and ripe,” said Desteni Baty, 10. “You can cook it the healthy way, and it will be much, much better.”
People who eat garden veggies and cook them the right way can be healthier and lose weight, Desteni said. Losing weight when you are young is better than waiting until you are an adult, Desteni said.
Hunter Chapman, 10, said that he loved the smoothie that Malone brought. Now, he wants to taste all the veggies that they plan to grow.
“I like learning about making new gardens,” Hunter said. “It’s just really interesting.”
By the end of Wednesday, students had written down what they wanted to put in their garden, including watermelon, squash, cucumbers and corn.
They also wanted strawberries, but Marsh talked about how the growing season for those had passed.
“My deal is I want them to know where their food comes from,” Marsh said.
Students are responding to the lessons, Weldon said. Several students said they were excited about the garden.
“If we care for the garden and we make it really healthy, we’ll get the nutrition for tasting good foods,” said Hayden Simpson, 10.