Getting Our Hands Dirty: STEM Learning, Girls, and Gardening

The motivations for school gardens have changed quite a bit since the U.S. Victory Gardens during WW I and II
The motivations for school gardens have changed quite a bit since the U.S. Victory Gardens during WW I and II

By Sayantani DasGupta

I was thrilled to hear that this spring, Harvey Mudd College in California made history by granting more engineering degrees to women than men, with 56% of their graduating engineering class being female. Because the sad fact remains, there is a dearth of women (and minorities) in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers in this country, so much so the White House has put the issue of women and STEM high on its agenda.

Clearly, there are many efforts underway to open doorways to STEM learning and STEM careers for girls and women. Check out this research collected by the National Girls Collaborative Project, gatherings like the Girls in STEM conference, or programs such as the Rosie’s Girls summer camp, which seeks to “build strong, powerful, confident girls through hands-on exploration of STEM activities and the skilled trades.” Their mission statement goes on to say they promote “leadership, teamwork, and healthy body image” and are a place where girls can “get their hands dirty tak(ing) positive risks and try(ing) something new.”

This idea of “getting our hands dirty” is, in a way, at the heart of the problem of girls and STEM. Studies show that girls are less likely than boys to take risks in classrooms, and this behavior is related to the way we reward girls for being “good” rather than for their efforts. To me, this is connected, at a fundamental level, to expecting girls to “stay clean and pretty” while accepting that boys will be dirty, rough on their clothes, and needing a good bath at the end of the day. (Interestingly, there are plenty of real benefits to playing in the dirt – from bolstering immune systems to physical health to a connection with nature.)

Which is where gardens come in. Educators all around the country see the connection between school gardens and STEM education, not to mention school gardens and healthy eating, farm to table/school connections, service learning, and environmental awareness/activism. In limited resource schools, gardens provide affordable, hands-on engagement in science for students who may not otherwise think science is either for or about them. School gardens connect students to nature and give them a sense of their relationship with themselves and the world around them. In these days of decreased outdoor play time, and cut recess periods, gardens provide boys and girls a healthy way to be in their bodies, release stress and anxiety, and yes, “get their hands dirty.” In the words of education researchers from Portland State University,

At present, K-12 students and their teachers rarely have the opportunity to learn beyond their concrete school walls and to reconnect with nature, exacerbating their disconnection of STEM from real life and hence sustainability. We believe that engagement with school grounds and gardens and the very soils on which learning takes place can provide simple yet authentic day-to-day educational experiences that can bring mindfulness of lessons related to the cycles of life and death and to the interplay of justice and power in our communities….School gardens provide a rich context for learning both for teachers and students by embracing experiential, integrated, and collaborative learning.

What about extending the connection to girls and gardening? How about educators realizing that letting girls get their hands dirty in gardens is another way to democratize STEM learning? There’s been very little written about girls, STEM, and gardening, but I’d like to make the case here that underrepresented students in STEM fields (including girls) particularly need gardening curricula in their schools – not because gardens are ‘nice’ but because traditional methodologies of educating for STEM learning are clearly missing these students. In addition, gardening activities are an alternate way for girls to relate to their bodies beyond the consumer-driven, sexualized toxic body cultures that so impact us all today.

STEM garden curricula are a way to encourage experiential science learning while letting our girls get their hands dirty. Let’s grow the next generation of girls in science. Right in our school gardens.

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