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Ag station sows science literacy in Geneva schools

In early May, third-graders at Geneva's North Street elementary school crowded around a table to plant seeds, unaware that their science program -- a collaboration between Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) and the Geneva City School District -- not only sows zucchini and marigolds, but also the seeds of scientific literacy.

"Science is what kids do naturally," said Nina McCarthy, the principal at West Street School who helped develop the program. "But in 2004, our students' scores on the state-mandated science tests were low, and our natural science curriculum was limited to about one hour a week."

With grants from NYSAES, Ag in the Classroom, and the Wyckoff Education Foundation, McCarthy and Cornell associate professors Christine Smart (plant pathology) and Stephen Reiners (horticultural sciences) launched a hands-on science program to teach elementary school students about plant science. Now in its seventh year, McCarthy credits the program for increasing science scores and boosting participation in 4-H.

Smart and Reiners gave the district's third-graders a crash course in seed biology -- from the tiny cabbage seed to the hefty coconut -- in early May, and every student planted seeds. A few weeks later, classes visited NYSAES to meet scientists, tour labs, learn to use microscopes and check up on their plants in the campus greenhouses. Later this month, each class will fill their plot in the school garden with vegetables and flowers from the seeds they planted.

"The garden is an enticing way to teach plant science," said North Street School third grade teacher Arlene Eddington. "The students really take ownership of the garden, and for many this is the first time they have ever planted a seed."

Over the summer, students in the Geneva City School District summer science program will tend the garden laboratory. With help from NYSAES faculty, the students are equipped with the tools of science -- a set of questions and an official lab notebook for their observations -- and learn about chemistry from soils, plant genetics from raspberries, microbiology from cheese, plant diseases from strawberries and all types of insects, from pests to pollinators.

In the fall, the same students will learn about cooking and nutrition using the garden. The program will culminate at the annual fall harvest festival, where students will present their research findings while the Geneva community dines on the garden's bounty.

The harvest, though, is not just culinary. Program leaders tout many benefits beyond the improved test scores, including: reducing fear of laboratory science, immersing students who learn best by doing, teaching math and data analysis skills, and providing a powerful academic connection for the many students whose parents work in agriculture.

"I think it's important for everyone to be engaged in the issues of the day, many of which are scientific. It's hard to be engaged if you don't have the scientific literacy to be conversant," said Smart. "But we also hope to introduce youngsters to local jobs in agriculture and role models and mentors for careers in science."

Smart and McCarthy concur that that community collaboration has been key to the success of the program. Many local groups pitch in, including the city of Geneva, which donates mulch; Bejo Seeds Inc., which sponsors a field trip and seed donation; students from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, who help weed the garden; Cornell Cooperative Extension 4-H program students, who share the garden; and farmers at the Geneva Farmer's Market, who are interviewed by the summer program students.

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer in Geneva, N.Y.

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Joe Schwartz