A third grade class full of muddy shoes and dirty fingernails may be a nightmare for teachers, but it’s a sure sign of an interactive learning experience.
With the aid of a Metro Central Enhancement Grant, the Sauvie Island Center will host third grade students from both James John and Chapman elementary schools this spring for hands-on science activities on the farm. James John students visited during the last week of April, and Chapman students are scheduled to visit in early June.
“We had a teacher say dirty fingernails equal an authentic learning experience,” said Elizabeth Schmitz, executive director at the Sauvie Island Center. “The more we can connect the students to this place and let them see how it changes over time, the greater their depth of understanding about the concepts we’re teaching will be.”
The Sauvie Island Center, a nonprofit that provides educational field trips to Portland area kids, received $14,050 as part of the grant last winter. Grants are awarded annually by a committee of neighborhood residents to benefit the communities living near the garbage and recycling transfer station in Northwest Portland.
“Kids in Title I schools – especially with budget cuts in this biennium – don’t have the opportunity to take field trips at all,” Schmitz said. “For many children, this is the only field trip they'll get.”
The Sauvie Island Center is located at Howell Territorial Park.
For economically disadvantaged schools, transportation to and from the destinations is usually the biggest hurdle when getting classes out on field trips. With the grant, Schmitz says that the center is able to provide transportation, which is a big help to the schools.
“These students in particular are in the local area so it helps them connect to a place they can come back to when they’re older,” Schmitz said.
Connecting food and farm
While on the farm, the third graders have the opportunity to participate in a series of activities that focus on food, farming and land. The center’s staff also makes it a priority for students to feel and taste many of the different crops growing on the land.
“When youth are exposed to growing food, they’re more likely to want to taste it, they’re more likely to want to try it, and after they try it, they’re more likely to eat it again in the future,” Schmitz said.
For Schmitz and her staff, introducing new foods and encouraging healthy eating habits among third graders is crucial, since a few of the neighborhoods surrounding James John Elementary are categorized as food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food deserts are defined as areas where it's difficult to purchase fresh food, largely due to a lack of grocery stores and farmers markets.
In 2015, with at least 40 percent of the student population considered economically disadvantaged, James John Elementary qualified to offer lunch at no charge to all students. At Chapman, 26 percent of the student population was considered economically disadvantaged and qualified for free or reduced lunch.
“Kids come to us and sometimes don’t know that a carrot is a root and that it grows underground,” said Jules Montes, program coordinator and garden manager at Sauvie Island. “It’s really incredible to see them make those connections, to be able to teach science in an outdoor environment and get them tasting things that they might have not tasted otherwise.”
From plants to puddles
However, for several of the third graders, the field trip is just a chance to splash in puddles around the farm and play a few games of tag.
“So many kids don’t do that well in a classroom, so to see them be able to use kinesthetic learning and do all these hands-on activities and practice science in an outdoor setting is really incredible,” Montes said. “It really touches some students who might be a little bit left behind otherwise.”
Beth Hufford, a third grade teacher at James John, says are much more engaged when they’re outside. But, she adds, it’s not only the kids who get to enjoy the trips, but teachers and parents as well.
“We like to be outside, but we also do a plant unit in third grade so we’re learning firsthand about plants, as opposed to sitting in our room and looking at it on paper,” said Hufford.
For Sauvie Island Center, these trips are more than just a way to teach students about plants and science. With each visit, the positive impacts of having a class outdoors are apparent, says Sarah Phillips, who is the education program manager.
“Environmental stewardship is a big thing,” said Phillips. “We need people who care about the land, who care about nature and who want to protect it and the only reason that you care about something is if you have a personal relationship with it.”