The most effective lesson plans in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education are interactive, meaning they provide opportunities for hands-on learning. In this kind of education, students learn through experience, rather than passively absorbing information.
One US city has taken a unique direction with experiential and interactive learning in STEM. In Birmingham, Alabama, seven schools have partnered with the nonprofit Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF) to provide students with insights into science. Read on to learn more about this initiative and the schools that participate.
In 2007, JVTF opened a 3-acre main site covering a city block in downtown Birmingham, where it grows more than 200 types of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. These are sold on-site, used and sold at partner schools, distributed to local restaurants, and donated to other organizations.
JVTF teaches about food to improve both the education and the overall well-being of students and their communities. The organization’s goal is to create learning environments emphasizing creativity, exploration, growth, and health, transforming the way we think about food, farming, and cooking.
JVTF collaborates with school partners to provide cross-curricular programming, which means they involve not only STEM disciplines but also social studies, English language arts, and art. Programs emphasize project-based learning; for example, students design and build composting facilities and living walls.
Programming also focuses on teaching students how to cook the food they grow. Not only do members of after-school clubs take produce home to cook for their families, but they also sell it in student-run markets.
John Herbert Phillips Academy
The most recent school to partner with JVTF is John Herbert Phillips Academy (JHPA). Due to its downtown location, this PreK-8 school uses the JVTF main garden for its programs. JHPA, which has an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, also established a farm club for its students.
Glen Iris Elementary School
The first school to construct an on-campus farm in partnership with JVTF was Glen Iris Elementary School, back in 2013. This PreK-5 school’s outdoor classroom features raised beds lining the edges of the playground and courtyard, shade arbors over the sidewalks, and vines running up the exterior wall of the gymnasium. The outdoor classroom also includes a pond, a kitchen, and a teaching pavilion. Programs include an after-school farm club and a student-run market.
Henry J. Oliver Elementary School
Henry J. Oliver Elementary School serves students from PreK through 5th grade. Its farm features fruit trees and a 30-bed planting field, along with raised beds for sensory gardening. It also includes amphitheater seating built into a hill, three supply storage facilities, a washing station, and a pond with a bridge. One 4th grade project-based lesson teaches students how pond water is filtered. The school’s farm was established in 2014.
Avondale Elementary School
Another on-campus farm established in 2014 is at Avondale Elementary School. Its farm features a pollinator garden, a shade arbor, and student paintings along the fence. It also includes a pond, a peace garden, and a teaching shelter that houses supplies. The farm’s raised beds are in an H-shape to maximize the number of students who can work in them at once. A recent farm-based lesson emphasized safety, responsibility, and respect.
W. E. Putnam Middle School
Serving grades 6-8, W. E. Putnam Middle School has a half-acre farm that features a pond and a living roof over its outdoor classroom, which has tiered seats and a large table. The farm also features a greenhouse designed by students, composting sites, and 25 raised beds. Flowering vines, sunflowers, and strawberries are just a few of the crops raised here. Additionally, the outdoor classroom encompasses a trail through a forested area around the campus. The program regularly focuses on native plants and avian science. While the trail was established in the 1990s, the farm was started in 2015.
C. W. Hayes K-8 School
Another farm launched in 2015 is located at the C. W. Hayes K-8 School. This school, like W. E. Putnam, has a half-acre farm. It includes a pond, shade arbors, and a pavilion where supplies are stored. Plants are grown in 35 raised beds, and the site is home to fig trees and blackberry trellises. In the fall, the farm club harvests collard greens, kale, and turnip.
Woodlawn High School
The Woodlawn High School farm was established in 2016. This is a 2-acre farm that features a 1,500 square foot greenhouse where 35,000 seedlings are produced each year for all of the school farms. Other facilities include offices, restrooms, a storage barn, and a teaching pavilion. This farm also houses an orchard with pear, apple, peach, persimmon, and fig trees, as well as a pond. The program is run in conjunction with a paid internship program, which also provides course credit.