Student Engagement through the UA Community and School Garden Program

The University of Arizona Community and School Garden Program has sprouted up over the last few years. Started in spring 2010 with six student interns in two schools, the program now has 53 interns in 10 schools and four community gardens.  The program, which is run by the UA School of Geography and Development in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, is a model for bringing service learning opportunities to UA students, as well as sharing the UA’s expertise with the community.

The Community and School Garden Program – which also receives support from the UA’s Green Fund, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Science, and Water, Environmental, and Energy Solutions – partners with the Tucson Community Food Bank to enable Tucson teachers to develop and sustain school gardens. Teachers, students and interns use the gardens as an experiential learning tool, one that connects students to their local environments as well as to the culture, science and politics of food.

Interns currently work at Ochoa Elementary, Borton Elementary, Manzo Elementary, Davis Bilingual Elementary, Drachman Montessori, Roskruge Middle School, Doolen Middle School/Community Gardens of Tucson, JB Wright Elementary, Whitmore Elementary, and the Wildcat School. UA interns are also working with community groups Las Milpitas de Cottonwood, Tucson Village Farm, Ironwood Tree Experience, and Rincon Heights Neighborhood Community Garden.

In addition to helping in the gardens, UA interns develop lesson plans and support the integration of the garden into the school’s curriculum, assuring that learning opportunities are consistent with AIMS standards. Science is a natural fit, and the interns help teach such concepts as germination, photosynthesis, and the impact of nitrogen in the soil. Social science and art are also incorporated as interns support the teaching of indigenous knowledge and food as well as encourage learning through drawing and photography.

In the beginning, the internship course was filled primarily with geography students, but as word spread, students from all over campus, both undergraduates and graduates, flocked to the course, bringing with them creative ideas for lesson plans, infrastructure development and afterschool programming.

For example, last semester, speech therapy major Melissa Silver developed instructional cards for conducting therapy in the garden. Studio art major Joie Horwitz worked on a photo essay project with students, instructing them on how to take photographs of “a new beginning" – an egg, a sprout, fish seeds – so they could improve their observation and writing skills. Other students have developed planting calendars and created instructional videos on how to compost food waste from the cafeteria.

An upcoming project for some of the interns includes helping the Food Bank, which recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bring more fresh fruit and vegetables and onsite food preparation to local school lunches.

To help the program expand, Sallie Marston, a professor in the School of Geography and Development and the program’s director, has created an advisory board to raise funds for a coordinator.

“There is a great deal of unmet demand for interns to support school and community gardens across the metropolitan area, but limited time and other resources available to meet the demand,” Marston said.  “A coordinator could not only help organize the placement and schedules of the growing number of interns and schools, but could also write grants and facilitate teacher training sessions, among other needs.”

Manzo Elementary: A Flagship Program

One school that illustrates the transformative power of a school garden and ecology program is Manzo Elementary, located in the Barrio Hollywood neighborhood of Tucson.

Moses Thompson began the ecology program at Manzo seven years ago as a dimension of his school counseling, using digging and planting as a way to teach cooperation, problem solving and anger management. Grants followed, and the program spread from an adjacent vacant lot into the school’s inner courtyard.

Thompson joined forces with UA interns in the Community and School Garden Project, as well as with other UA graduate students, allowing him to take the school’s ecology program to the next level, which included building water cisterns, a desert tortoise habitat, a pollinator garden, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, an aquaponics systems (where they farm tilapia), a heritage fruit tree orchard, and, most recently, a greenhouse.

The greenhouse was an ambitious project that has allowed Manzo to jump from having an education garden, used primarily to teach students, toward a production garden, where enough food is grown to sell at Manzo Market, a weekly farmer’s market at the school, where the youth sell produce, eggs, and occasionally smoked tilapia to local residents.

The development of the greenhouse opens up a whole suitcase of educational opportunities, according to Thompson, who wants the students to learn entrepreneurial and marketing skills, such as how to price their produce in order to both make money and offer affordable, organic food to the community.

Helping spearhead the greenhouse project was Brandon Iker, a Ph.D. candidate in the Soil, Water and Environmental Science department. Iker’s tasks range from helping lay concrete foundations to working toward improving garden production at Manzo.

“For me, Manzo is an outdoor research laboratory,” said Iker, who grew up on a farm in Ohio. “After a sterile day of dissertation work, I really enjoy my time at Manzo working with nature and kids." 

With the addition of ecology integrationist Wes Oswald to the Manzo staff, the school is incorporating the ecology program into all of their subjects, with UA interns as energetic collaborators and implementers. Tasks range from teaching the students how to make change for Manzo Market to testing the water chemistry in the aquaponics system.

The UA interns also help the students with data collection – How many eggs did the chickens produce? What is the weight and volume of the food waste? The interns use this data to teach math standards, such as measurement, graphing, and predicting.

“This has proven to be a more effective way of teaching math because the students are invested in the data,” says Thompson, who acknowledges that the school has a history of poor AIMS math scores.

 “This is the first year we have integrated the garden into the math curriculum, and already we are closing the gap,” said Thompson. “We have made benchmark gains in a month like never before. I am expecting significant gains in our AIMS scores.”

The garden goes beyond being an effective tool for teaching curriculum: Thompson believes the ecology program has transformed the climate of the school.

“It’s like night and day,” said Thompson. “Almost all the counseling I did when I started was crisis response – fighting, violence, bullying. Now, my counseling is mostly proactive social development.”

The students are invested in the success of the program. They come early, stay late, and work through recess to do such tasks as compost lunch leftovers and monitor the aquaponics system.

“These kids are incredibly competent,” said Marston. “I am blown away by them every time I visit the school. They are very serious about what they know and very thoughtful when you ask them questions. They are very proud of their school.”

As well they should be.

The School was featured in National Geographic and was recently named “The Best Green School of 2012” by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools; it was the only K-12 public school in the U.S. to win this title.

These accolades may have helped the school survive this past fall when it was on the chopping block along with several other schools in the TUSD district. Instead, Manzo is being turned into a district charter school.

Thompson asked Marston to sit on the charter board, and hopes the UA will play a formal role at the school. He envisions Manzo expanding its role as a service learning destination for UA students and a training site for other schools looking to start or expand their ecology program.

John Paul Jones III, the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, is all in favor of strengthening the relationship between schools such as Manzo and the UA.

“This is a great example of how we can achieve the goal of 100 percent engaged learning President Hart has set for the university,” Jones said. “And it’s a wonderful example of how the University can serve the community.”

Contact:  Sallie Marston, Professor in the School of Geography and Development, 520-621-3903,

Caption for Photo 1: Manzo third-grade tour guides Brenda and Kaylee show off the new greenhouse with UA intern Brandon Iker. Brenda and Kaylee are big fans of “salad parties.”

Caption for Photo 2: UA students Brandon Iker and Lauren Maghran do some digging at Manzo Elementary. Iker said the therapeutic benefits of the garden don’t just apply to the Manzo students: “Dealing with the stress of graduate school can be overwhelming at times, but for me, my stress relief can always be found at the bottom of a freshly excavated rain water basin.”


Published Date: 

03/05/2013 - 9:30am