THE BLOG
03/03/2016 04:24 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2017

The Missing Ingredient in Science Education

Communities play a key role in helping STEM projects like urban farming take root.

Less than a decade ago, even the principal of Trowbridge Street Elementary School in Milwaukee saw no reason why parents would want to send their kids there.

The school was in physical disrepair. Some rooms hadn't been painted in 30 years. With a dwindling student population, Trowbridge no longer offered art or PE. The school, which was founded in 1894 and includes Hollywood actor Spencer Tracy among its alumni, was on the verge of closing.

Instead, Principal Thomas Matthews took inspiration from Lake Michigan, just blocks away. A lifeline for the surrounding Bay View community, the lake became the school's central focus as it was rebuilt around the study of ecology, freshwater sciences, and the Great Lakes. Today known as the Trowbridge School of Discovery and Technology, the school is near capacity. The STEM-inspired shift has "given the school new life," Matthews says.

But Trowbridge's teachers didn't make this change alone. They reached out to the community for help, including local businesses, colleges, the Coast Guard, and Milwaukee's growing urban farming industry, which has helped transform schools across the city by creating opportunities to learn science through creating, tending, and cultivating in-school aquaponics systems, as shown in this video.

The district also played an important role. By partnering with the community and providing needed resources to schools across the district, Milwaukee Public Schools is growing and sustaining these programs, nurturing a love of science in many more students and increasing the lifespan of the program.

I've written before about the impact these kinds of project-based programs can have on students, and how they imbue needed science skills with the meaning students need to make them part of their lives. But through our work with school-based STEM programs in Milwaukee and New York City, we've learned something else. Schools, teachers, and students thrive when the community is a partner. When educators engage the community beyond the science classroom, hands-on STEM programs like aquaponics and urban farming are more likely to bear fruit. By reaching out to businesses, community organizations, and parents, educators make sure that the ways in which students learn science and other skills match what's important and needed in the places where they live.

And schools need to be receptive to what the community values. In our experience, it can be parents and other community members that identify the kinds of hands-on learning that is most relevant to students. In New York City, it was a community activist who saw ominous parallels in the limited access to fresh nutritious food in Haiti and some of the city's poorest neighborhoods and a Bronx native who grew up with her hands in the dirt of community gardens that brought hands-on urban farming to two city schools.

Through a group called Project EATS, urban farmers and other community members offer after-school activities held in and around on-site gardens built by students and community members and its own large urban farm. The community group has also been instrumental in reaching out to teachers to integrate lessons from the school gardens into in-class science teaching. And, as you'll see in the video below, students are sharing what they're learning -- and growing - with their communities, offering locally grown vegetables in places where they're not often available.

"Grown in Brooklyn" isn't a sign you'd expect to see in some of the borough's poorest neighborhoods, but through this partnership it's become a reality, introducing students, their families, and community members to the availability of fresh, organic food. In Milwaukee, produce grown in schools' aquaponics labs have been sold at farmer's markets and directly to restaurants. These kinds of activities teach students a wide range of skills they will need in future careers, extending beyond farming to marketing and coordinating complex events. They also help support the kind of locally sourced food chain that's all the rage of late.

The principals and educators at these schools should be commended for reaching out to -- and welcoming -- community groups with real stakes in what students are learning. But they should also make special efforts to connect hands-on science with those with the greatest stake in students' futures -- their parents and families.

That's what's happening at another Milwaukee elementary school. At Byron Kilbourn Elementary, families have had a front-row seat to watch as produce is grown and cultivated in the school's aquaponics lab.

"We want to bring them in and see that these same skills can be replicated at home with their own gardens," Principal Lolita Patrick says. In much the same way, I believe that kind of outreach is the fertile ground which will have a lasting impact on students, families, and their communities.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of The NEA Foundation.