Ecosystem Garden Curriculum - Introduction

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The Ecosystem Garden Curriculum is a sequence of activities and resources that enables students to grow plants for sale, and manage formal and semi-wild gardens with increasing independence.

The practical work of running a small ecosystem and an associated business provides a point of entry into a rich network of biological, physical, ecological, and social science experiences. It requires applied literacy, math and project management skills to solve concrete problems. Gardening as a community requires complex social coordination.

To garden, a class requires some kind of tenure over a garden site, a modest level of unskilled parent volunteering, and weekly professional garden consultant. Ideally a school will have some kind of multi-age classroom arrangement that allows for student-to-student transfer of knowledge over time.

Curricula are driven by the cycle of the seasons, resulting in a recurring pattern of seasonal activities. Each year builds on the last. Students are conscious actors in their school yard, get to see the consequences of work, and to feel satisfaction in the stewardship of public land. Science is the tool of gardening.

Most science education encompasses three broad areas: 1) developing scientific evidence through experimentation, 2) the thinking skills to understand simple and complex systems, and 3) conceptual literacy in the branches and fields of knowledge.

The semi-wild garden is a messy alternative to the modern school yard. Our institutional landscapes typically consume fuel, chemicals and labor, to maintain a simplified ecosystem with limited services. Large areas of the school landscapes are a liability.

As a community by contrast, we are completely dependent on the management of ecosystems. We derive all our sustenance from the earth. Globally, land management of land is the cause of extinction, ocean dead zones, lake hypoxia, desertification, and human starvation.

Why Interact with Real Ecological Systems

Ecological systems are bigger than a student. The ecosystem is not just an object of study--curricula becomes a necessity if you want to be effective. Cultivating plants is not only useful, it is one of the requirements of being human on earth. In struggling with ecological systems we offer students something primal--a challenge that has a sense of history and consequence. Civilizations have died because they couldn't grow enough food.

A garden site provides undiscovered territory. All our theories and values provide only a partial map. Many students will rapidly surpass their elders in ecological knowledge. When you get into the assembly of semi-wild vegetation, you get to see evolution at work. All manipulation is experimental, and based on assumptions and predictions. We find our way with both intuitive knowledge and extrapolation of the scientific record. Both are enriched by reflective observation.

The garden is a model for our relationship to the earth. Like the earth, a garden can be a self-replicating system that runs on sun energy and information, capturing and cycling water and rare earths. Gardens are miniature landscapes, and give a glimpse of the fundamental processes that shape the global ecosystem.

In this ecosystem view, plants and soils are introduced as a single system. Plants create soils and are responsible for the energetic flows that support almost all known life in the universe. We can observe, measure, and understand this system as it fluxes and transforms in front of our eyes.

Young children are focused on individual organisms they can hold in their hands. As development advances, students are able to move from concrete to abstract. Students can leave the the macro-organism scale, and either dive into microorganisms and biochemistry, or expand to consider landscapes and watersheds. The 3-5th grade levels is a transitional period. Children are still operating at an individual or patch scale, but are increasingly able to link observations through conceptual leaps (for example, the rain falling from the sky is the same water that is flowing in that stream).

Model describing multiple nested scales at which you can observe ecosystem dynamics--functions emerge at each successive scale.

Moving between scales, and seeing systems nested in systems is necessary for complex thinking. It was Feibleman (1965) who suggested that to understand a complex systems requires understanding both its position in the landscape, and its internal dynamics.

© Paul Cereghino, 2011-16, All Rights Reserved

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