In the Weeds

04/20/2015 11:57 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

Why urban farming helps students work across disciplines and solve our biggest STEM dilemma:

The greenhouse at Fernwood Montessori, a public school in Milwaukee, doesn't just contain a sustainable ecosystem for the plants and fish inside. Through an innovative aquaponics program that teaches students about healthy eating and entrepreneurship, it's at the heart of a sustainable future for Fernwood's students and their neighborhood.

In schools in Milwaukee and New York City, we're seeing that when students get their hands dirty with urban farming, they wind up learning about all kinds of things -- healthy foods and lifestyles, entrepreneurship and the needs of their communities. At the same time, they are doing real science, building and monitoring complex aquaponics systems, farming on school grounds, maintaining compost piles and selling the fruits of their labor to local restaurants and at farm stands in their neighborhoods. It's a textbook example of how to engage kids in science, technology, math and engineering -- but the problem is that activities of this sort are rarely found in textbooks.

For all the talk about the importance of STEM education -- and even in places where it's being emphasized -- too often content is being presented without context. Consider the proliferation of "paper labs," particularly in cash-strapped schools where science classrooms aren't adequately equipped. Instead of activities that spark their interest, students read descriptions of what they would see if they were actually mixing chemicals or measuring water salinity, and then fill out worksheets based on the results. That's hardly a formula for success.

I've written before about how focusing on STEM without sparking kids' imaginations is putting the cart before the horse. That's why what's happening with urban farming in Milwaukee and New York City is so exciting. When students put their hands into a compost pile during an afterschool program sponsored by Project EATS in New York City, they make connections with classroom lectures about anaerobic and aerobic bacteria. Students in Milwaukee Public Schools study the water supply, identifying minerals that can hinder the growth of the plants in their aquaponics labs, and in both cities, students who traditionally have struggled with math and science have flourished in these programs.

And the lessons they learn go far beyond STEM. Students make connections between the food they are growing and what may or may not be available in their neighborhoods. They discuss food safety, transportation, and social justice issues. Some get summer jobs on urban farms, including a summer fellowship offered through Project EATS in New York. They find what they're learning relevant to their communities, which, in turn, helps them find a place in those communities. They work across disciplines, studying patterns of consumption for neighborhoods that serve people from diverse socio-economic groups and develop marketing strategies that require them to think independently and write persuasively, applying what they learn. And they learn how to live healthy lives by eating better and being more active. In Milwaukee, healthy foods grown in urban farms within the city limits are now served in many schools. Michelle Obama would be proud.

A new report released this month explains why this kind of hands-on, student-directed, experiential learning is so valuable. Bank Street College professor Michael McGill, a former teacher and school superintendent, argues that "schools of tomorrow" will have more interdisciplinary study that requires students to take on big challenges--like figuring how to grow a new food supply in urban areas or thinking about how to distribute water in America's arid West. Addressing these issues, McGill says, "students learn about history, politics, science, math, and potentially literature and demonstrate their knowledge through projects, research, and presentations in settings that are similar to college and the workplace."

This kind of teaching and learning also helps to engage students, opens the schoolhouse to the community, and builds useful connections to local industry, colleges, and careers. In the process, teachers are no longer at the center of activity, and become learners themselves. Through grants in both cities, we're working to make sure that teachers have the opportunity to collaborate and support each other as their roles shift and these programs expand, and to help make these programs part of the curriculum itself, so even more educators and students can take advantage of them.

The employers who rely on a workforce with strong STEM skills understand the importance of engaging students where they are, with experiential education that helps them find their place in the community and in the broader world. That's why AT&T is working with us to support urban farming projects in New York and Milwaukee. "In order to keep our country's economic growth and innovation engine moving, it's critical that we develop STEM skills in our young people," explained Nicole Anderson, executive director of philanthropy at AT&T. "Programs like this one ignite the interest of the next generation in the STEM skills they'll need to succeed through exciting, real-world applications."

As we celebrate Earth Day, I think of the growing number of schools where the students have their hands in the earth every day. I remember working with my father in our vegetable garden while I was growing up. So does former professional basketball player Will Allen, who has since become a pioneer in the urban farming movement, earning a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in the process. Along with Sweet Water Foundation, which is providing training and professional development to Milwaukee teachers, Allen's non-profit organization, Growing Power, has been instrumental in getting aquaponics off the ground in the schools there.

"It is possible to have a garden in every school in America," Allen said during an award presentation. And what better way, really, to ensure that our students continue to grow as well, becoming more knowledgeable about STEM, more interdisciplinary in their thinking, and more civic minded and engaged in their own learning.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of The NEA Foundation.