Biology comes to life in Robins School gardens
The young scientist attached the collected brittlebush leaf onto a page in her notebook. With great detail, she sketched the specimen and noted its color, texture, and size. She would later collaborate with her colleagues to share her findings. This researcher is, in fact, a second grader at Robins Elementary School in Tucson, working to fill her “Sonoran Private-Eye Notebook” with observations of the school’s Desert Garden.
“Those are fourth-grade goals, but to have this opportunity now and right out the door – I like that,” said Melody Myrand, a second-grade teacher at Robins, who is compiling lesson plans to integrate the schoolyard garden into classroom learning.
Robins’ teachers and students established the garden at the end of 2008 in collaboration with members of Sweetwater, a local neighborhood in the Catalina Foothills. The community has built backyard habitats that are certified by the National Wildlife Federation and supported by a grant through the PRO Neighborhoods organization.
Although other local schools maintain gardens, Robins is the only elementary school in Tucson to be a NWF-certified Schoolyard Habitat, according to TUSD records. The Sweetwater in the Foothills community is the only certified community wildlife habitat in Arizona.
“In the other schools I’ve been in, we’d have maybe a corner to plant things or some pots,” said Myrand, who taught at several other schools before Robins. “But this was full scale.
Three years before NWF-certification, each grade level planned and mapped out the habitats that would make up their Desert Garden. Each area would include a water source and vegetation that would appeal to specific wildlife, such as penstemon for hummingbirds. The kindergarten and fifth grade classes planned the bird habitat; first and second graders, the butterfly habitat; and third and fourth graders, the cactus habitat.
Each assigned area had a “planting day” on consecutive Saturdays in the fall of 2008.
“There were a lot of dads sweating that day,” Myrand said, describing the labor put in by students and parents alike on the Saturday designated for the second graders to create their cactus habitat.
Support and funding for the development of the Desert Garden came from a committee consisting of community members, Robins’ families, and the school staff – a committee led by Geri Ashworth, a member of the Sweetwater Community Wildlife Habitat team. The CWH team had paved the way for Sweetwater’s NWF certification in 2007.
“With the schools having reduced funds, the gardens may satisfy teachers’ goals to expose the children to outdoor education projects without having to leave the campus in buses or cars,” said Ashworth in reference to budget cuts to the Tucson Unified School District.
Having the Desert Garden at the school also allows students to witness constant environmental change. “We have this daily observation of change throughout the year, as opposed to one trip, a snapshot, of the Sonoran Desert,” said Myrand. A single trip does not give a child a “sense of change or a sense of place.”
And every day, Myrand and her students have something new to see. In just the past few months of 2010, Myrand noted the students discovered a blue egg on the playground, investigated aphids feeding on a milkweed plant, and enjoyed the scent of a blooming “chocolate flower” – also known as Berlandiera lyrata, a chocolate-scented yellow daisy.
The projects and experiences of Myrand’s second graders and Lloyd’s fifth graders are the beginnings of a compilation of lesson plans that – Myrand hopes – any Robins teacher will be able to pick up and use in the classroom.
With learning materials such as insect habitat kits, provided by TUSD, and reference books from the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, Myrand said it’s easy to integrate the Desert Garden into classroom learning.
Myrand said the local wildlife visit the campus fairly regularly.
“Because it’s very quiet here most of the time, we get javelina in this courtyard,” said Myrand, referring to a collared peccary native to Tucson that resembles a wild boar. She and Kathy Lloyd, a fifth grade teacher at Robins, also described an incident where two bobcat cubs relaxed in a nearby tree during a Parent-Teacher Conference.
But Myrand said for the three years she’s been teaching at Robins, the children haven’t been in any real danger.
“The worst thing is that we had a lizard die. Someone stepped on it,” said Lloyd. The students were concerned for the injured critter, she said, and attempted to resuscitate it.
Considering the lizard incident, both Lloyd and Myrand have noticed a change in the students’ outlook since the planting and use of the Desert Garden. Before, it was “just a lizard” or “just a plant.” Now the students are showing empathy toward wildlife, said Myrand.
“They’re becoming more aware that humans have a responsibility to look after the environment, and trying not to leave too much of a footprint,” said Lloyd.
“The kids love it so much,” said Myrand. “That in itself is rewarding.”
PLANTS IN THE GARDEN
Ocotillo, hedgehog cactus, Barrel, Desert Spoon, Penstemon, Pontentilla, Jojoba, Bear Grass, Cholla, Banana Yucca, Mexican Blue Yucca, Organ Pipe.
Baja Fairy Duster, Ocotillo, Bear Grass, Four Wind Saltbush, Chuparosa, Wrights Bee Bush, Desert Spoon, Penstemon, Native Wildflower seeds, Ruellia californica, Jojoba, Barberry, Creosote Bush, Firethorn, Desert Willow, Red Hesperaloe, Chocolate Flower.
Wrights Bee Bush, Texas Ranger, Cassia, Red Yucca, Pine Leaf Milkweed, Desert Milkweed, Dalea greggi, Lantana, Chifuahua Honeysuckle, Penstememon, Desert sage, Jojoba, Globemallow, Desert Wildflower packets, Trailing Lantana, Wooly Butterfly Bush.
Britney Lizama is a third-year student at the University of Arizona, majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology. She is originally from Guam, but had uprooted herself from island life in 2007 for a chance at higher education in Tucson. She is fascinated by the rich biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert and hopes its preservation will be at the forefront, especially during the growth and expansion of Tucson.
This article ran in the June 2010 issue of the Tucson Green Times.