School gardens can be powerful educational tools. They enable teachers to tap into their students’ energy and curiosity through integrating active, hands-on lessons in conventional academic subjects, like math, science, and language arts. At the same time, school gardens help teachers introduce students to important ‘real world’ applications of what they learn in the classroom, such as the dynamics of local ecologies, the science of sustainability, and the political and cultural aspects of our food choices. Equally important as conventional and practice-based learning spaces, school gardens foster cooperation, autonomy and social justice.
The University of Arizona’s School Garden Workshop (SGW) harnesses this pedagogical potential by placing undergraduate and graduate students trained in the basics of sustainable agriculture as interns at school gardens in underserved Tucson neighborhoods. The interns support the installation, maintenance, and enhancement of these public gardens, and assist site coordinators, teachers, and K-12 students in the use of these outdoor spaces as extensions of the classroom.
As each semester begins, UA students in the SGW service learning course meet with the course field coordinators to choose a garden site that meshes best with their existing skills and interests. The interns commit to spend between 3 and 12 hours each week working at their placement site and to attend a class meeting one evening each week. They are trained in practical matters (e.g. working actively with children and youth, garden site design, the basics of composting) and engage in group activities on issues ranging from sustainability, the connections between food and race, and community empowerment.
The course, which began with a group of 16 interns in the Fall of 2011, enrolled more than 50 in the Spring of 2023. To this point, more than 800 UA students from 64 different majors have completed at least one semester as a SGW intern.