Science in the Learning Gardens: a Study of Students’ Motivation, Achievement, and Science Identity in Low-Income Middle Schools

Motivation and achievement are important factors in the development of children and influence how they self-identify and which careers they end up choosing later in life. Yet often neither curriculum nor pedagogy are able to sufficiently address students’ cultural and motivational needs. A program in Portland tries to change that and battle the under-representation in science of students from racial and ethnic minorities by engaging children from low-income middle schools in outdoor, after-school science activities.

The under-representation in science of students from racial and ethnic minority groups and from low-income groups, and inadequacies of curriculum and pedagogy to address students’ cultural and motivational needs are two well-documented, interrelated educational problems. Science in the Learning Gardens (henceforth, SciLG) program is designed to address these two problems:

SciLG is a partnership between Portland Public Schools (PPS) and Portland State University (PSU), in Portland, Oregon, USA. The program brings underrepresented middle-school youth from PPS into under-used gardens at a critical time in their intellectual development to broaden the factors that support their interest and motivation in STEM learning. Seven pedagogical principles (acronym GARDENS) serve as framework for instruction.

SciLG is pilot-tested in grades 6, 7, and 8 at two schools in PPS district. Six classes of 24-30 students per class, come to study in the gardens with their classroom science teacher, for a 50-90-minute block. The research team studies how learning gardens can serve as an effective pedagogical strategy for NGSS-aligned science curriculum. Data are collected using measures related to science learning, along with measures of motivational engagement using Self Determination Theory (SDT) model (see figure):

Motivation Matters

The SDT motivational model holds that schools can either support or undermine children’s fundamental psychological needs, which include the needs for:

  • relatedness (to feel they are welcome and belong),
  • competence (to feel they are efficacious), and
  • autonomy (to feel self-determined in their learning).

This model highlights both curricular and interpersonal factors that help students develop a positive academic identity for science and to engage, persist, and succeed in science. Longitudinal data included a measure of students’ overall motivational experiences in the garden (that combined their reports of relatedness, competence, autonomy, and engagement, and teacher-reports of re-engagement in garden-based learning activities) to predict four science outcomes: engagement, learning, science grades, and science identity.

Self-perception as important factor for future success

Participating in SciLG activities seemed to help diverse students not only engage more productively in science class, but also to think of themselves as individuals who could be successful and valued as contributors to the scientific community.

This study provides preliminary support for the notion that learning in school gardens has the potential to promote science equity via the opportunity for students to experience different ways of learning science that are engaging and motivating, which in turn may promote students’ sense of science identity and science achievement. Participating in SciLG activities seemed to help diverse students not only engage more productively in science class, but also to think of themselves as individuals who could be successful and valued as contributors to the scientific community. Findings also lend support for the current motivational model, based on self-determination theory, as a means for capturing the “active ingredients” of SciLG activities. Together, the findings provide support for the SciLG program and school gardens more broadly, as milieus for promoting equity via science identity and achievement.

An opportunity to tip the scales

There is a sense of urgency to ensure success in school and participation in science fields, particularly for students from racial and ethnic minority groups and those from low-income groups who have not been successful in science in traditional settings. As concern for social justice is increasing, the growing school garden movement provides an opportunity to tip the scales by engaging students in authentic, real-world learning of science and cultivating their interests in science with holistic garden-based learning. This study highlighted the role of students’ views of themselves as competent, related, and autonomous in the garden, as well as their engagement and re-engagement in the garden, as potential pathways by which gardening activities can shape science motivation, learning, and academic identity in science.

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