Twelve undergraduate students embarked on a journey during spring break to discover their strengths as students, teachers and innovators as part of the Experiential Garden-Based Learning in Belize course this semester. They returned with ways to leave a permanent mark on the education they provided while in Belize.
The course, a joint effort between the Department of Horticulture and the International Agriculture and Rural Development program, emphasizes the integration of local agriculture, community food security and gardening through reflective writing and providing the opportunity to teach garden-based subject matter in the rural Toledo district of Belize over spring break.
Students in the class the first day coming up with a definition for garden-based learning, an opportunity for academic service learning, which "consists of classes, activities and projects where gardening is used to integrate learning across disciplines, through active engagement and hands-on experience," explained the students in a May 2 seminar. The class, along with the instructor, two graduate student and a Cornell Cooperative Extension mentor, worked closely with the nonprofit Plenty Belize on the Garden-based Agriculture for Toledo's Environment (GATE) project in schools comprised of rural Maya children.
While in Belize, the students taught children using the garden as a reference point. The class was divided into three teams, each with a different lesson plan: teaching the biology of plants found in the garden, conveying the importance of designing a functional garden and the showing the connection between gardening and nutrition. At the end of the week, the students led a training session for 34 teachers in the Toledo district on how to incorporate garden-based learning in their curriculum.
"I think there were points on the trip at which the bar was raised regarding their own understanding of what they would be able to accomplish," said course instructor Marcia Eames-Sheavly, lecturer and senior extension associate at Cornell.
The students returned to Ithaca with concrete ideas on how to transform their experiences into meaningful projects, which they presented at the seminar. Each project will be incorporated into Plenty Belize's GATE program, though many of the projects also have relevance to the United States.
For example, Shauna-Kay Rainford '12, a natural resources major, created a brochure about the benefits and potential problems associated with the rapid construction of hydroelectric dams in Belize. Lindsay Myron '11 used her talents as a photographer to create a multimedia presentation for Plenty Belize's outreach program. Amy Jacobson '11 produced a vegetable growing guide for teachers that Plenty Belize has identified as pivotal to the success of school gardens there.
Kristen Loria '11, who volunteers locally at the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, created a garden-based pen pal curriculum to be used by teachers in the United States and around the world.
Michelle Fonzi '11, who developed a handbook for teachers on garden layout, said that the most interesting part of the course was the ability to "bridge the gap between food and aesthetically pleasing gardens." Fonzi, a landscape architecture major, has "always been interested as a landscape designer in the interface between an ornamental garden and a small-scale farm. Learning about garden-based learning has been really eye opening."
"It's exciting that the cornerstone, the benchmark for their final project, is relevant. Every single thing that they produced will be used. They're really collaborating, working together, getting ideas from different people…so that what they produce can be useful," said Eames-Sheavly. "And this, of course, mirrors the real world -- the world that they will enter into upon graduation."
Graduate student Kate Engler is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.