Science in the Learning Gardens: Factors that Support Ethnic and Racial Minority Students’ Success in Low-Income Middle Schools

Dilafruz Williams
Meeting Materials

To address the troubling trends of underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minority students in STEM and of student disengagement in schools, Portland State University and Portland Public School District have partnered to create Science in the Learning Gardens (SciLG), a program that brings together two recent education movements: adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and a surge of national interest in garden-based learning.

Using a cross-cultural and cross-organizational partnership model that includes teachers, SciLG has three components: (1) Curriculum is designed to align with the NGSS and a set of performance expectations that combine practices of science and engineering with core ideas and crosscutting concepts across the science disciplines and uses school gardens as milieus for learning. (2) Instruction is provided in the learning gardens. (3) Self-determination theory serves as a framework for research on motivational engagement.

SciLG is offered in grades 6–8 (2014–17) at two schools that have a majority of non-white and low-income students who bring rich cultural and linguistic diversity with ~20 languages spoken at home.

Documented Results
Research on the effectiveness of SciLG is based on motivational models derived from self-determination theory (Figure 1) to explain how garden-based science activities can contribute to minority students’ motivation and learning in science class and academic identity in science. Results from the first phase in 2014–15 included student reports of engagement (effortful, energized participation) in a garden-based education program, which predicted their science class engagement, science learning, and academic identity in science. Moreover, these relationships seemed to be mediated by students’ experiences (feeling autonomous, competent, related, and purposeful). This suggests that the extent to which garden-based activities help promote students’ success in science might depend, in part, on how well SciLG fosters a sense of ownership, efficacy, belonging, and purpose.


Potential Applications
The curriculum alignment and development for SciLG is a process that can be used by other schools and districts as they adopt and apply the NGSS in practice. University faculty and classroom teachers worked together to organize grade-level performance expectations into thematic garden-based units of instruction, and identified connections to the adopted middle school science curriculum (SEPUP, in this case). This process not only offered participating teachers an opportunity for relevant, meaningful professional learning about the NGSS, but it also ensured that the garden-based science program supported classroom teaching and learning. Though focused on middle school grades in Portland, Oregon, this flexible learner-centered process could be applied at different grade levels in schools with or without an adopted science curriculum. Furthermore, the new curricular and instructional materials developed through SciLG integrate engineering design through authentic, real-world problem solving related to issues of food, soil, energy, and other sustainability themes that are present-day relevant topics across grade levels.

For More Information
NSF Teaching and Learning site, 2015:
Principal Investigator (PI): Dilafruz Williams:; Co-PI: Sybil Kelley: