Gardening programs make STEM accessible to youth

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Karen Knutson and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Recent years have seen a growing interest in youth gardening, with school based gardening programs taking the lead besides neighborhood and community grassroot programs and others developed through University outreach (e.g., Garden Mosaics, Kennedy & Krasny, 2005), botanical gardens (e.g., Project Green Reach, Morgan et al., 2009), and through initiatives of community and youth organizations (e.g., 4-H initiatives; e.g., Rahm & Grimes, 2004). What these studies all underline, and what philosophers and educators have noted a long time ago, is that youth gardens are rich contexts supportive of diverse learning opportunities that emerge from youth’s work as gardeners, and offer youth a means of agency and ownership of their learning.

While much has been written about gardening in the context of environmental education, there has been less attention to the ways garden programs reach out to diverse urban youth in underserved communities and offer them a means to become critical advocates, activists, and change agents in science and their communities. What motives drive their participation in gardening in the non-school hours? What kinds of ISE experiences do such garden programs support? And what do such settings come to mean to youth over time? Brief answers are offered in light of a selected range of studies that have examined youth centered gardening programs.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Youth Motives for Participating in Gardening Programs

Motives for participation tend to be closely tied to the goals of the programs, their structure and location. For instance, the entrepreneur gardening program organized by 4-H in an urban community garden entailed the planting and growth of diverse herbs and flowers, which were then harvested and prepared for distribution in the community through markets at special events and local restaurants. Motives for participation tend to be centered on developing work skills, on making money given a weekly stipend (Rahm, 2002; Rahm & Grimes, 2005). In contrast, a program situated in a botanical garden was sought out by urban youth given their interest in nature, in spending time outdoors, next to keeping busy during the summer months (Rahm, 2010). It also made possible ownership of a garden plot in which their hard work paid off in a harvest that they could bring home, making possible youth ownership and agency. To engage in gardening in a botanical garden also led to public recognition of youths’ hard work (see also project Green Reach). The latter motives also drove youths’ participation in a science project in a homeless shelter that led to the development of a community garden designed by youth with the goal to beautify their community and bring the community together (Calabrese Barton, 2003; Fusco, 2001).

When exploring more closely the kinds of ISE experiences these kind of youth centered gardening programs support, it is readily evident that science is best understood as a tool for action in such places and hence, relevant to youths’ lives (Fusco, 2001; Rahm, 2010). Most youth would not refer to themselves as insiders to science given participation in gardening but as stewards of nature, of their community and their environment. Participation mediates a new way of seeing and relating to the environment and appreciation of beauty and care for that environment, suggesting a close link between science literacy and emotion that then makes such knowledge embodied in ways that can lead to its mobilization in the future. Seeking evidence, noticing interesting patterns, and making inferences about evidence are also forms of engagement supported in a garden that shape youths’ scientific thinking in important ways.

Sustaining Engagement

New ways of understanding nature and relate to science that emerge through participation are also embedded in complex relationships in programs that matter to youth (Mayer-Smith, Bartosch, & Peterat, 2009). Through intergenerational interactions, interactions with Master Gardeners, community activists, elders and through engagement in programs centered on youth empowerment and critical action, ISE experiences add up to a toolkit that youth can mobilize for action as informed citizens of science (e.g., Garden Mosaics). Opportunities to engage with science in gardening programs over time and the possibility to take on different roles within these programs also constitute youths’ interest in and sustained engagement (Rahm & Grimes, 2005). Since youth make such programs work, passive forms of engagement are not an option, putting much responsibility on youths’ shoulders to perform (Rahm, 2010).

Long-Term Studies

While few studies have explored participation in such programs over time, a study of the Brooklyn’s children garden alumni’s points to lasting positive impacts in terms of the participants’ self-esteem, awareness of and concern for their environment and nature and personal and social well-being tied also to an on-going interest in and practice of gardening (Smith & Hamilton, 2006). Another example is an alumni follow-up study by Brigham and Nahas (2008) of the Food Project’s summer youth, academic year, and internship programs. Participants referred to the many challenges working on the farm implied. Yet, what made the programs particularly valuable was the focus on diversity as an asset, and in bringing together youth with vast varieties of histories, to work together and learn to value the land and each other as resources. It also led youth experience the value of hard work and effort. Embedded in such outcomes was also youths’ recognition for and expertise in sustainable agriculture that they may be able to mobilize in their future next to an enactment of an identity as environmental activists.


In sum, studies on youth gardening programs suggest that gardening can play a crucial role in making ISE experiences accessible to youth and mediate STEM literacy development.  Youth gardening works best as a science learning program if it creates a “practicing culture of science learning,” which Fusco (2001) says can be accomplished through starting with participants’ concerns “inside and outside science,” asking participants to research and then enact ideas, and connecting the project to the broader community.  Most important, the research reviewed here pushes us to think of science as a tool for action that youth may develop in part, through sustained engagement in programs as those described. It forces us to think of science literacy in broader terms which in turn, may make it more widely accessible and desirable for youth who can then come to see themselves as insiders to science.

Directions for Future Research 

Researchers at E2i Creative Studio at UCF’s Institute for Simulation & Training explored in 2012 the idea of Connected Gardens – could there be multiple levels of engagement with gardens and communities across the nation and globe that would enable novice interested learners to become avid gardeners? In their pilot research, the idea of looking at the inverse relation between the level of the learner (novice to expert) and the level of guidance they would need (structured, then semi-structured, finally “cognition in the wild”) was explored in a general fashion.


Brigham, R. A., & Nahas, J. (2008). The food project: A follow-up study of program participants.

Calabrese Barton, A. (2003). Teaching science for social justice. New York , NY: Teachers College Press.

Fusco, D. (2001). Creating relevant science through urban planning and gardening. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38, 860-888.

Kennedy, A. M., & Krasny, M. E. (2005). Garden Mosaics : Students learn about cultural heritage and develop scientific investigation skills in a unique garden program. The Science Teacher, 72(3), 44-48.

Lekies, K. S., & Eames-Sheavly, M. (2007).  Fostering children’s interests in gardening. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 6, 67-75.

Mayer-Smith, J., Bartosh, O., Peterat, L. (2009). Teaming children and elders to grow food and environmental consciousness. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 6, 77-85.

Morgan, S. C., Hamilton, S. L., Bentley, M. L., & Myrie, S. (2009). Environmental education in botanic gardens: Exploring Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Project Green Reach. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(4), 35-52.

Rahm, J. (2010). Science in the making at the margin: A multisited ethnography of learning and becoming in an afterschool program, a garden, and a math and science upward bound program. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Rahm, J. G., K. (2002). Emergent learning opportunities in an inner-city youth gardening program. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(2): 164-184.

Rahm, J., & Grimes, K. (2005). Embedding seeds for better learning. Afterschool Matters, 33-41.

Smith, E. K., & Hamilton, S. L. (2006). Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s children’s gardening program: A survey of alumni. Proceedings from the 6th International Congress on Education in Botanic Gardens. Retrieved February 10, 2008, from]