Students at Jack Robey Junior High School recently set up their own school garden thanks to a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff initiative, said Karleah Harris, assistant professor for the UAPB Department of Human Sciences.
Funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant, the project promotes active and inquiry-based science learning.
Harris and undergraduate students from the UAPB Department of Human Sciences helped Tamika Ratliff and her science students prepare garden beds for planting produce such as strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage and bell peppers.
"It is so wonderful to team up with Dr. Harris and UAPB on a project that helps solve the problem of the food desert here at Jack Robey Junior High School," Ratliff said. "My students have really enjoyed planting and taking care of the garden. They are so excited to be able to eat fruits and vegetables that they grew themselves."
Women, especially women of color, are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields, Harris said. Introducing all students to scientific concepts at an early age can help increase women's representation in STEM fields. Engaging, hands-on projects such as the gardening initiative at Jack Robey can help open the door to a lifelong interest in science, she said.
"I enjoyed the questions students asked while they learned and planted different crops in the garden," Harris said. "This always led to fruitful discussions. The students had the opportunity to build knowledge, work collaboratively and find out where their food comes from. And they were not afraid to get their hands dirty."
She also applauded the school administrators.
"Mr. Arnold Robertson, the school principal, is very supportive of this project and is always willing to help in any way he can to ensure the success of his teachers and students," Harris said. "Ms. Tamika Ratliff was very involved in the authentic scientific inquiry activities and was supportive of her students."
Frances Rodgers, a UAPB human sciences major and project participant, said the collaborative project was a fantastic educational experience.
"Dr. Harris taught me a lot about the development of the crops we planted," she said. "She has inspired me to eat healthier and cultivate my own food. With the current inflation issues and rising food prices, it is a wise decision to start producing my own veggies."
Desheryl Alexander, another human sciences major, said she enjoyed watching Harris instruct children how to plant, care for and harvest gardens.
"Dr. Harris made these lessons fun and educational both for the children and project coordinators like me," she said. "Dr. Harris also taught the children about the importance of eating healthy fruits and vegetables that they can grow themselves. I look forward to working on similar projects in the near future."
USDA NIFA award #2021-38821-34712 funded this project.
Will Hehemann is a writer and editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.