Big Green Learning Gardens in Chicago Public Schools come in many shapes and sizes. With unique garden bed configurations and schoolyard locations, you can walk through all of the Learning Gardens in the city and be inspired by something new at every turn. There is, however, one undeniable, unifying factor connecting every one of these spaces: all Learning Gardens are located outdoors.
Though the Learning Garden at Carl Schurz High School is no exception, the vision for this outdoor growing space began indoors, with a hydroponics grow lab brought to the school in 2016. Jaime Guerrero, a local marketing executive, chef, urban farm advocate, and administrator of the lab, established the Food Science Lab (now the STEM Grow Lab) to teach students at Schurz how to grow and market fresh food. He also envisioned it as a space to give students opportunities to participate in hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math education. Lori Kunc, the Library Media and Technology Specialist at Schurz, was on the initial planning team for the STEM Grow Lab. Through this role, she learned about agricultural and food sciences and realized how the STEM Grow Lab had the potential to impact students by exposing them to important lifelong skills in meaningful ways. Lori remembers, “when the opportunity to apply for a Big Green Learning Garden came up, I thought it would be a perfect complement to our budding indoor lab by giving students experience growing their own food in an outdoor garden as well.” Possible connections abounded as the STEM Grow Lab team imagined students working inside during the winter, experimenting with hydroponics and aquaponics and seeding plants to transfer outside in the spring. Students would also be able to collect, compare, and share data on different growing methods. The Learning Garden application was followed through with enthusiasm.
Installed on September 29, 2017, the Schurz Learning Garden quickly became a celebrated and much-utilized aspect of the school community. Lauren Bauknecht, a teacher at Schurz, immediately saw the connections between her Environmental Science classroom and the Learning Garden. During that inaugural school year and into the summer, Ms. Bauknecht’s classes were out in the Learning Garden researching, planting, caring for, and harvesting a variety of plants in the garden.
Through this work, Ms. Bauknecht says that her students “not only learned how to care for another living thing and its specific needs, but also to be patient and hold pride in their accomplishments.”
Ms. Bauknecht went on to highlight some of the other ways the Learning Garden has been embraced by the Schurz community. Nutrition classes have been held in the Learning Garden. During these classes, students discuss the importance of fresh produce in their diets and have opportunities to sample a variety of these plants in salads and smoothies prepared by the students themselves.
The Learning Garden has also helped with the social-emotional needs of some students. Taking time to work with their hands and participate in teamwork has taught students to take a step back from their busy, sometimes overwhelming lives to enjoy the little things that garden life has to offer. Ms. Bauknecht and other Learning Garden teachers have also teamed up with the Schurz Low Incidence Program where students with Autism and other physical, social, or educational needs have opportunities to grow in and tend to the Learning Garden. Through this program, students gain skills they can take home with them, become more engaged in the Schurz community, and are provided with a unique science experience.
Maya Odim organizes and coordinates activities for both the Learning Garden and STEM Grow Lab at Schurz. In addition to supporting Lauren Bauknecht and her classes, Ms. Odim has also welcomed Tiffany Verbeke and her Environmental Science class into the space. Since September 2018, Mrs. Verbeke’s students have been working on many different projects including: repurposing dried sunflower stalks, harvesting Swiss chard and kale for donation to the Schurz lunchroom, harvesting and drying herbs for students to take home, and building hydroponic towers in the STEM Grow Lab. In addition to the lunchroom, harvests from the Learning Garden have been sold by students at the Independence Park Farmers Market, donated to the Irving Park Community Food Pantry, and taken home by students, teachers, and staff who visit the garden.
Through a combination of activities like group discussion and investigation, planting and harvesting, sampling foods and composting, engineering, arts, design and community outreach, Ms. Odim hopes that work in the STEM Grow Lab and Learning Garden becomes an experience relevant to multiple aspects of a student’s life and that students begin to recognize the importance of learning how to “garden”.
To learn more about Carl Schurz High School, the STEM Grow Lab, or the Learning Garden, visit their website. If you are interested in bringing a Big Green Learning Garden to your school, you can find our application here.