Reinvigorating our System of Science Education


Thorp, L. & Townsend C. (2001). Agricultural education in an elementary school: an ethnographic study of a school garden. 28th Annual National Education Research Conference. 347-360.

When will educators take a moment to realize that science education has shifted from a foundation of wonder to a system of teacher accountability, test scores, and rigorous scientific curriculum? What would happen to science education if we began placing as much emphasis on wonder as we do on accountability, scores, and science standards?  Laurie Thorp and Christine Townsend (2001) take a naturalistic approach to improving science curriculum by studying the “impact of an agricultural education garden-based curriculum on the students and teachers of a Midwestern elementary school” (p. 348). The purpose of their study was to gain a” phenomenological understanding of the impact of an agricultural education-based curriculum on the students and teachers” (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 348) and address the problem of “declining standardized achievement scores” within this community (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 348). Through a case study, the researchers wanted to accentuate the positive effects of a garden-based curriculum but constantly felt “pressure to demonstrate improvement of academic performance in the design of their research and curriculum” (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 349). Although the gardening movement comes with a large number of benefits for teachers and students, a majority of the studies analyzed by the researchers were “unable to report any significant difference in academic achievement as a result of the gardening program utilized” (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 350). Even with the limitations previously reported by other researchers, Thorp and Townsend continued with their case study and discovered a wide variety of benefits.

Thorp and Townsend (2001) explore our “relationship to the land and what it might offer agricultural educators struggling to engage children in the learning process” (p. 347), by introducing the topic, past research, and the purpose of the study; then discussing the theoretical framework and methodologies; and concluding the article with a case study comprised of rich participant descriptions, a conclusion, and further recommendations. The framework for the research project is built from the past research all the way through to recommendations for action, which provides a rich discussion about implementation of a school garden. Exploration of the agricultural integration in a struggling school is done through a consistent lens of “human development coupled with environmental awareness or connection with nature” (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 349). Throughout the article the researchers develop a theory of how human relationships with nature are a combination of both endogenous and exogenous forces and is supported by qualitative data that is collected throughout the case study.

The methodology utilized by the researchers is “axiomatic to naturalistic inquiry” (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 350) and is process oriented, meaning, “the research design becomes nimble, adaptable and exquisitely finessed to the local context of the study” (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 350). Thorp and Townsend  (2001) use a variety of qualitative methods: interviews and dialogues, participation observations, documents, photographic images, naturalistic data analysis, content analysis; allowing the researchers to analyze a full description of the participant’s experiences. Although a large variety of qualitative data is collected, quantitative student data, such as test scores, would have helped give a full view of the effects of the program implementation. In order to justify credibility of the methodologies, the authors referred to the following criteria: catalytic validity, triangulation, reflexivity, and understanding, which they discuss judges “the quality or validity of phenomenological inquiry by standards appropriate to the paradigm” (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 352). Along the same lines as the data collection methodology, a similar method for analysis was utilized, which allowed for all parties to be involved in the data analysis process and progress to occur throughout the case study. Naturalist data analysis was utilized in order to analyze the data throughout the case study, allowing for self-correction and validation.

An outstanding description of the case study is presented in a first-person narrative that offers a vivid description of the participant’s experiences throughout the study. By using this method of introducing the case study, I was able to relate to the underperforming school and truly see the benefits that the participants encountered. I felt as if the presentation of the study was incredibly powerful, moving, and motivating to an educator who works in a similar environment. A description of the benefits was thoughtfully analyzed, which included an improvement in school culture and pride, improvement in creativity, cross-curricular projects, community connections, and an enthusiasm that test scores could not create. All of these improvements made me think: Are we taking the fun and excitement out of education by focusing on test scores and teacher accountability? Should underperforming schools continue to focus on test scores or begin to focus on the renovation of their school culture?

This analysis of school gardening brought about a wide array of questions about how underperforming schools are approached and how we attempt to improve science curriculum by increasing the rigor. Maybe it is time for our schools to address some of these concerns by “[discovering] how agricultural educators might reconnect students to school via a garden” (Thorp et al., 2001, p. 348) or how other educators can integrate real world experiences into their classrooms in order to encourage student engagement and participation.

This article has increased my knowledge of the integration of school gardens and has motivated me to continue researching the many advantages that such a project could have for my students at the Academy of Math and Science. Some recommendations for research that the authors suggest surrounding this area of study are to utilize emergent design in further research, don’t rush the process, and reflect during all aspects of the research. As far as practice is concerned, the researchers also provided guidance to those who wish to take action, such as, including a volunteer to assist in implementation, involve parents and families in the process, include a Extension Service Master Gardener, and do not allow curriculum to hold you back from implementation.

Overall, the researchers present a wide variety of information and proof is provided that there are many benefits to implementing a gardening program in an underperforming school but there are limitations. An engaging science activity such as this improves school culture and student engagement but does not show correlation with improvement of test scores, which, unfortunately might limit the number of schools interested in engaging in this type of program. I believe that if we can peak a student’s interest then we might begin to see improvements in other areas, such as test scores, which is why I am interested in investigating the long-term effects of a garden program on overall student test scores. This article has sparked my interest and I am going to continue to explore the idea of integrating a school garden into the curriculum at the Academy of Math and Science.




Thorp, L. & Townsend C. (2001). Agricultural education in an elementary school: an ethnographic study of a school garden. 28th Annual National Education Research Conference. 347-360.


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