Research Summary

Science in the Learning Gardens (SciLG): A study of students' motivation, achievement, and science identity in low-income middle schools

Students’ motivational experiences in garden-based learning predict science engagement, learning and achievement

International Journal of STEM Education

This study examined student motivation, achievement, and science identity based on the garden-related experiences of racially and ethnically diverse students who participated in Science in the Learning Gardens (SciLG) program. The primary goal of the study was to determine whether students’ motivational experiences in SciLG activities are linked to important science outcomes, both concurrently and across school years.

Science in the Learning Gardens (SciLG) program addresses two inter-related educational problems: under-representation in science of students from racial and ethnic minority groups and inadequacies of curriculum and pedagogy to address their cultural and motivational needs. SciLG engages sixth- through eighth-grade students in garden-based learning activities every week for a 50-90 minute block. Students participating in this study were from two highly diverse, low-income schools where all sixth-graders took part in the SciLG program in the spring of 2015 and again, as seventh graders, in the following fall term.

This research was based on data from 113 students and three teachers during the spring and fall terms. A student assessment focused on garden self system perceptions (SSPs) and garden engagement. A teacher assessment focused on students’ re-engagement in the garden after experiencing challenges in the garden. The SSPs survey was based on a motivational model combining culturally responsive pedagogy with principles from self-determination. Students’ SSPs were computed by averaging their scores from scales measuring competence, relatedness, and autonomy in relation to garden activities. Students’ garden engagement considered both emotional and behavioral participation as reported by the students. The teachers’ report of student re-engagement was based on their observations of each student either persisting or giving up when faced with challenges in gardening activities. Results of the student and teacher reports were combined and used as an indicator of students’ overall motivational experiences in the garden.

To explore how students’ experiences in SciLG impacted their participation in science, the researchers included measures of four specific science outcomes: learning in science class, engagement in science class, science identity, and science grades. While science grades were obtained from school records, student self-report surveys were used to measure the other three outcome areas (learning in science class, engagement in science class, science identity).

Findings indicated that students with more positive motivational processes in the garden were more highly engaged in science class, showed higher levels of self-reported science learning, had a more positive science identity, and received higher grades in science at the end of the year. Findings also showed that students’ SciLG gardening experiences in spring of their sixth-grade year significantly predicted all four science outcomes during the following fall. These findings support the idea that students’ experiences in garden activities may transfer back into the science classroom and foster students’ interest in pursuing science long-term.

This research adds to the social justice research by indicating that the school garden movement may promote science equity and help close the achievement gap between more-privileged and less-privileged students. School gardens give students the opportunity to experience different ways of learning science that are engaging and motivating. Such learning experiences may, in turn, promote students’ sense of science identity and science achievement.