Planting food sustainability thinking and practice through STEM in the garden

STEM in garden_using a digital microscope
Learning how to use a digital microscope


There is an expectation for school teachers in Australia from pre-school through to higher education to deliver inspirational course content to their students so that a progression of STEM learning acts as an enabler for all students to achieve their full potential according to their learning stage levels. In tandem with this challenge, innumerable reports have also highlighted the urgent need to enrich STEM competency levels of primary school teachers. In this context, the research team * from Southern Cross University responded to an expressed school community need, articulated through a primary school Principal’s desire to integrate STEM learning into the classroom.

The project facilitated teacher professional learning through authentic teaching and learning experiences that involved the development of a STEM teaching program in the context of food sustainability. Core to this involved identifying and predicting Australian native and non-native plant growing conditions at schools that were from three different geographic regions on the mid and north coast of NSW. Accordingly, food gardens containing native and non-native plants were established as a vehicle to apply STEM learning. The rural and remote settings of the schools involved was influential in the design of the program, coupled with transferable teaching and assessment strategies for Stage 3 primary school students. Given the distance between the schools, a connected classroom was used for students to share their progress, investigations and results from the activities.

*The team of SCU researchers who contributed to the project and dissemination of project findings included Dr Angela Turner, Dr Marianne Logan and Adjunct Associate Professor Judith Wilks.

  • Collegiate of schools from NSW rural and remote primary schools with staff from:
    • Scotts Head Primary School
    • Krambach Primary School
    • Bexhill Primary School
  • Students, teachers and Principals

The STEM in the Garden project promoted school community connectedness through cross curriculum design-led innovation that focused on interdisciplinary learning and assessment strategies across scientific, technological, engineering and mathematic literacies.

The impact of this project enhanced awareness and understanding of food sustainability and climate change for staff and students. This was achieved in science by designing and carrying out a Fair Test~, and exploring the relationship between soil pH, light, CO2 and water (for photosynthesis and growth); in technology (applying design thinking and using digital microscopes and robotic data logging); in food engineering (DNA extraction as an applied design process), and mathematics (robotic coding, measuring quantities and plant growth and graphing using manual and digital applications).

~ A fair test is a test which controls all but one variable when attempting to answer a scientific question. Only changing one variable allows the person conducting the test to know that no other variable has affected the results of the test

During the STEM in the Garden program all schools established gardens that were managed and maintained by the students, with one school establishing a gardening club. This generated community interest where a retired Pharmacist continued the program that involved a strong teaching focus on plant structure, soil quality and environmental factors that affect plant growth. Measuring and recording these differences manually and digitally, in particular, increased student interest in mathematics:

…implying that because maths was presented in a different context, the students were eager and looked forward to doing the mathematics when it was, for example, presented in an engineering context…it looked different and felt more appealing to the students in a STEM context (Teacher participant feedback).

Evidence from surveys prior to the workshop and teaching program suggested that teachers were generally not confident in providing science content in their lessons (and felt that science hadn’t been a major component in their own teacher education programs). By the end of the 10 week program there was an increase in their levels of confidence to integrate science knowledge and skills into their lessons (as demonstrated by the post-test survey results).

As a case example, the professional learning provided by Southern Cross University through the STEM in the Garden program, influenced the design and delivery of curriculum in Krambach Primary School. For example, the theme of food sustainability and climate change was tied to the existing Scope and Sequence Science program. The participating teachers and Principal at this school indicated there was an increase in knowledge and skills that extended the STEM in the Garden project to create a sustainable area for natural bees and butterflies through the design and development of a sensory garden. Teachers at Krambach Primary School continue to extend and share their skills and knowledge from the STEM in the Garden project. Due to the successful impact from the program, there has been interest expressed by six schools in the mid-coast region (NSW) to replicate the program at their schools. This ongoing engagement with Southern Cross University is well positioned to extend the STEM in the Garden program to a wider collegiate of schools according to the Krambach Primary School Principal:

chart of garden growth

“I believe this program, will not only enhance teachers’ knowledge and skills but continue to influence awareness on climate change through this highly engaging program for students”.

According to one teacher, the substantial impact on students was evident at the conclusion of the program:

Today when I said, ‘This is our last lesson’, they were devastated. Absolutely devastated that they’ve finished it. And there was one week that I had to change the lesson, so I did it on a Monday or a Tuesday, and they were so excited because they thought they were getting two STEM lessons. But then on the Thursday, I wasn’t able to do it. They were coming to me going, ‘Are we doing STEM?’ And I’m like, ‘No, not today.’ ‘Why? Why are we not doing STEM?!! (Teacher participant feedback)

This research utilised Technacy Genre Theory (TGT) to assist in framing and interpreting statistical inferences on integrated interdisciplinary assessment. The fundamental principles utilised the contextual synthesis of people, tool choice and eco-resources, as key elements that exist in technological activities as a method to identify and bridge the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. The critical proposition underpinning TGT was validated through empirical means throughout the research design.

Three schools took part in the STEM in the Garden project that was implemented during 2017 (Scotts Head Primary School, Krambach Primary School and Bexhill Primary School). Prior to the project commencement, the primary school teachers and teaching Principals were invited to participate in a one-day workshop that involved the provision of a set of teaching and learning resources, supported through activities that specifically focused on STEM programming, guided by an inquiry based 5E constructivist learning sequence. The workshop provided teachers a vehicle for professional learning activities prior to the commencement of implementing the teaching program. During this scoping stage of the project, the teachers raised the issue of interdisciplinary assessment and the need to develop a guide in tandem with the program. As a result, an Interdisciplinary Learner Assessment Guide was developed, framed through TGT elements. Thus, the methodology drew on TGT to frame learning experiences by applying TGT literacies to the STEM disciplines:

  1. Science: Hypothesis testing literacies
  2. Technology: Digital microscope and robotics literacies
  3. Engineering: Food systems and biotechnology literacies
  4. Mathematics: Coding, data collection and statistics literacies

Data collection methods consisted of both qualitative and quantitative instruments. Questionnaires were completed by the teachers and Principals immediately pre and post workshop. Individual semi-structured interviews conducted post-implementation of the teaching program provided the opportunity to collect further open-ended, qualitative data. Interview responses were evaluated against earlier perceptions and pre-conceptions documented at the beginning of the 10-week teaching program. These data collection instruments were designed to capture Stage 3 Primary School teachers’ and teaching Principals’ self-perceptions of their knowledge, competencies and efficacy in teaching across the STEM learning domains. Of particular interest to the researchers was documenting these perceptions in the context of teaching STEM pedagogy in the teaching and learning framework of environmental food sustainability.

The study found there was a significant growth in teachers’ skills and confidence and that a new teaching and learning culture in STEM emerged. Teacher’s noted an increase in student efficacy and engagement across science, technology, engineering concepts and mathematics where higher order thinking skills and curiosity was evident. The teachers and students collectively benefited by engaging in team teaching, rotational activities, group work, peer to peer and student to teacher learning.  They took part in many hands-on learning activities, such as how to use scientific digital devices to understand the biological make-up of plants, how to use robotic data logging tools to record soil, water and weather conditions, and how to apply mathematical processes to measure and record soil and nutrient content, microorganism activity and rainfall.