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2018 Youth Garden Grant Winner: Morton Freshman Center

morton freshman center monarch waystationLooking to more fully integrate the Next Generation Science Standards and add engineering content into his biology class, educator Kevin O’Toole embarked on a new curriculum this year focusing on the design and construction of a Monarch Waystation at Morton Freshman Center in Cicero, Illinois. 

The year-long project, officially titled “Student Citizen Scientist Monarch Butterfly Ecology Engineering Project,” began with the establishment of 30 teams of students.  Each team member chose from one of four jobs, including scientist, technologist, engineer, and mathematician (hitting all 4 STEM learning areas). Their mission: to design a 5,000 square foot garden for the school that would provide a suitable habitat for the Monarch butterfly within a budget of $5,000.

“Many of the students in our school are from Mexico so there was a strong cultural connection with the Monarch,” shares Kevin. “This was an opportunity for students to work on a real-life ecological problem [the declining Monarch population] caused by human impact. This was as 'real world' as it gets.”

Three years ago the school installed a native plant garden, and the students began their project by learning all of the plant species living there, and then evaluating the current garden’s biodiversity using Simpson’s Index of Diversity. After completing their evaluation of the existing garden space to determine its suitability as a Monarch habitat, they then launched into the process of designing a new space that would be even better suited as a pollinator habitat.

Each student on the team took on different responsibilities for the project, including:

Scientists. The scientists were in charge of researching native plants that would provide a food source for Monarchs (and other pollinators). They made sure there was enough plant diversity so that flowers would be in bloom throughout the growing season to provide a consistent supply of nectar. Amazingly, Kevin mentioned, each of the 30 teams arrived at very different plant lists. 

Technologists. The technologists took on an educator/marketing role. They were responsible for managing a twitter account and providing regular tweets on both native plants and Monarch butterflies. They also created digital media content, such as designing a logo, making promotion posters and filming a video about their project.

Engineers. The engineers were responsible for the final layout and design of the garden. 

Mathematicians. The mathematicians measured the garden and planting areas and figured out the number of plants that could be sustained in the assigned space. They were also responsible for the teams' budgets.

Together the team completed a professional portfolio that included a final design, a plant list and the budget.  They then made a ‘bid’ for the contract and the winner was chosen from an internal vote among the classes and a second vote from the entire school.  Each team was also responsible for making a video documenting each step along the way.

“I was nervous about the project at first and went into it being very transparent with the students that we were trying a new process that put less emphasis on testing and more on problem solving," Kevin admits. "They were given no limits and could take the project where they wanted to.  What they focused on was up to them. One of our guest speakers from the Forest Service commented on how much our project was like the real world.  Students were learning firsthand how technology can help scientists and engineers solve problems in the real world.”

In addition to academic skills, the students had a chance to practice a number of valuable life skills that will help them greatly after graduation, such as teamwork, communication and leadership skills. Kevin notes “there was a strong emphasis on collaboration.  Through out the process, leadership skills showed up and you could easily see who were the real leaders in the class.”

Once the votes were tallied, it turned out the winning team won both the class and the school-wide vote.   After the selection, Kevin said he just turned over the reins and let them take it from there.  The team members transformed from planners into project managers and worked to coordinate all the supplies, plan the installation schedule and coordinate the workers (students and community volunteers).  They had to figure out how to take the design and build it to scale. It truly was a student-led project from beginning to end.

“The most surprising thing for me during the process,” shares Kevin, “is that whenever I thought I was pushing them too far and asking for something too complicated, they never complained and they did it better than I thought they could do it. “ The students even added new components to the project on their own, such as canvas paintings for an educational display.  “The results exceeded my expectations.  The students got something out of it that was far beyond a normal curriculum.”

It is not hard to imagine the pride the students felt on planting day and the boost in their self-confidence in successfully completing such a large and involved project.  “On breaking ground day, everyone was shocked how many people from the community showed up and we even made the front of the local newspaper. With an underserved population, it was great for the administration to be able to see our students do something that is truly exceptional.  Many struggle with benchmarks like standardized testing, but they have some awesome skills and this project allowed us to tap into those.”

The question of the hour for Kevin is whether or not he will continue the same curriculum next year.  Although the space is available, he is not sure whether the administration will be up for installing a new garden each year. But he is quick to point out that most of the learning came from the design process, and that 95% of the designs were not selected but the students still benefited greatly from the experience.  So, even if they are not able to install a garden next year, the students could still participate in the project to the point of creating portfolios. 

What an amazing curriculum led by an innovative educator and enthusiastic students!  It was an honor for us at KidsGardening to be able to recognize Morton Freshman Center as a 2018 Youth Garden Grant Winner.