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Impact and Outreach

NC State Project Promotes STEM Education at Dillard Drive Elementary

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Learning doesn’t always take place in a classroom. For both NC State students and the second graders at Dillard Drive Elementary in Raleigh, it was cultivated both literally and figuratively in a school garden this spring.

NC State professor Bethany Cutts recently led her students from the NR203: Humans and Environment course in mentoring more than 100 second graders in learning about pollination, plants and ecosystems, and garden planting and maintenance. The fruits of their labors also included garden-grown cucumbers, peas, beans, zucchini, herbs and marigolds. 

Funded through a grant from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion that was made possible by annual donors to the College of Natural Resources and from challenges won by the college on Day of Giving, the project aimed to provide Cutts’ students with an opportunity to interact with and mentor a diverse community partner and to provide opportunities for elementary students who do not typically have access to STEM programs.

While each weekly garden day had a topic and list of probing questions, students made learning connections beyond the curriculum. Elementary students interacted with college students and were exposed to future education opportunities and college life at an early age. In turn, college students exercised their teaching capabilities and discovered the importance of partnership and building community connections. 

 “Connecting to kids and seeing childhood in general and how they interact with nature was nice to mix up the college students’ lives and remember they are part of a larger world,” said Cutts, an associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management. 

Cutts said there were also some nontraditional educational achievements, such as an entire elementary school class eating raw vegetables or a college student unintentionally networking at a Saturday gardening cleanup day and finding a job at a landscaping company. 

Karen Proctor, STEM Specialist at Dillard Dr. Elementary, said the project exceeded her hopes: “We have begun a personal relationship that will continue in the next years and created living spaces on our campus that are enduring as well as beneficial to the Earth.” 

Stacy Nelson, interim associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the College of Natural Resources, commended Cutts and Proctor on developing an innovative way to engage NC State students and faculty in working with the Dillard Drive students on critical STEM initiatives and lesson plans. 

“Not only do these efforts expose the Dillard Drive students to exciting new ways of learning and connecting with the science, teachers, mentors and roles models, but this program also connects our students to a broader community in ways that promotes more holistic thinking about the privileges we all have and the responsibilities we bare to give back and make this world as equitable as we possibly can, wherever we can,” Nelson said. 

The Dillard Drive Elementary School garden will continue to be a part of the school community and build learning opportunities for future students and educators. Proctor is planning additional educational opportunities for the elementary students in addition to potential weekly lessons with NC State students. Ideas include mini-units for each grade level so all can participate in gardening, teachers using the garden in science lessons and for a gardening club. 

This story was written by Rebecca McNeill for the NC State College of Natural Resources.