We LOVE science! We LOVE plants! We LOVE microbes!
The third graders learn about life cycles in their classroom, so we taught them about the nitrogen cycle in the garden! We focused on how special plants called legumes are able to trap and harness atmospheric nitrogen in little Rhizobia-filled nodules in their roots that we call “pink pearl pockets.” The students observed a whole fava bean plant closely and drew it in their journals.
We broke off parts of the root system full of nodules for each student to look at under a hand lens.
These hand lenses allow the students to observe the roots at 10x magnification and see the fantastic intricacies of the nodules. Wow!
Once they had finished drawing, we asked them to pop the nodules and look inside. “Ooh looks like blood!” was a common observation. These nodules are actually full of a compound called leghemoglobin, which is similar to the hemoglobin found in our blood! I was very, very thrilled to see the students observing & making that connection on their own!
After the students learned all about the nitrogen cycle and how plants are able to restore the soil with root nodules, they learned about the importance of green manure in sustainable gardening practices. We walked over to a patch of fava beans we had planted in the winter, chopped them all down, and turned them into the soil. Ah, the nitrogen cycle at work!
It’s incredible to see how receptive students are to experiential learning. They heard about the abstract idea of nitrogen cycling through the ecosystem and then directly got to involve themselves in that cycle by interacting face-to-face with the stars of the show, the fava beans. Before we even explained what we were doing with the favas, a light bulb went off in one of the students’ heads and he said, “Oh I get it! We are returning nutrients to the soil!” Moments like this are so, so rewarding because it shows that we are able to lay a platform on knowledge onto which students can make their own conclusions and predictions about the natural world!
Which is heavier: a piece of fennel or a brassica inflorescence? Find out in the garden! We gave students an assemblage of objects from the garden including rocks, sticks, and plant parts. They were asked to choose one object and compare its weight to their partner’s. First, students made a prediction. “My object will be heavier/lighter/the same as my partner’s.” Next, the two would discuss their predictions together and see if they predicted the same result or something different. Finally, they put both of their objects on the balance and observe the outcome!
Spring has sprung everybody! The brassica flowers are blooming, the California weather is warmer, and the beautiful birds are singing!
This week in the garden we made delicious spring rolls using plants the kids had grown. First, we took rice paper wrappers and soaked them in cool water while we walked around the garden foraging. The students collected red lettuce, wild onion, Italian parsley, cilantro, fennel, brassica flowers, onion flowers, borage flowers, and more to put in their rolls. Back at the picnic table, we grabbed some fresh mint & calendula petals and assembled! They layered all of their goodies inside the rice wrappers, putting the flowers down first. And wow — aren’t they beautiful! Here’s a close-up:
They are super fun and easy to make and the students love them! One student even said, “these are better than any spring roll I’ve ever gotten from a restaurant!”
As the second graders learn about inches and centimeters in their classroom, they get to practice those skills in the garden. Students pair up and bring a yard stick, pencil, and graph paper with them as they search for plants to measure. Once they find a suitable plant, they place one end of the yard stick at the base of the plant, measure how tall it is, and then shade in that area on their bar charts. They also label their charts with a title “Plant Measurement” and the specific plants they measured. Students worked together as a team in their partnerships and shared their findings with each other!
While many children make nutritious snacks in the garden, some also formulate creative beverages during lunch! A group of fourth-grade girls bring cups of water into the garden and fill them with flavorful herbs. These students brightened up their water with sour grass, lemon balm, mint, curly kale, fennel, and miners lettuce. Combine it all together and voila, garden tea! They even used sour grass as a straw!
As each school year comes to an end, my school mailbox fills with love letters from many students. One that stood out for me this year was from Zev a graduating 5th grader who was the first student that showed an interest in saving seeds on his own, in his backyard garden. I gave him a small handful of Chocolate Swirl Fava beans in 2nd grade and suggested he try growing some to eat and save some beans on the plant till they were dried up and store those for planting the next year. He occasionally came into the school garden to check in on the ones that we were growing to compare and update me on his patch. The 2nd year he grew the ones he saved to grow a second crop. In 4th grade he gave me a large bag filled with his proud harvest as a gift to me. His last year in school, I got to plant his seeds with my incoming Kindergarteners. In his card he wrote, “Thank you for helping me grow from a seed to a plant.”
With all the NGSS, (New Generation Science Standards) classes are geared to inspired curiosity of the natural world, which allows students to learn how to communicate about things that really matter to them.
Whether they are graphing the temperature of the compost pile over time, learning about soil microbes or practicing to measure calculate or predict, they can deepen their understanding while also rediscover the joy and fascination of science in action. In simple terms NGSS places emphasis on a student understanding the underlying concepts and then how to apply them in a real world setting.
This represents one of the greatest opportunities we have ever seen for having millions of environmentally literate students and, eventually, the tens of millions of environmentally skilled and effective adults we will need to both save the planet and have prosperous and sustainable economies.