Life Lab

Life Lab cultivates children's love of learning, healthy food, and nature through garden-based education.

Growing Questions – Inquiry in the Garden

When kids explore Life Lab's Garden Classroom, questions naturally bubble to the surface. Giant drops of water on kohlrabi leaves, gophers peering out of their holes, and hummingbirds drinking from flower vases seem to ignite their curiosity.

We find students' questions and enthusiasm for learning absolutely invigorating, particularly in today's educational climate. With such a strong emphasis on tests to determine if students have learned the answers to various questions, the art of questioning itself appears in danger of becoming extinct. Within this context, it is a breath of fresh air to hear children asking their own questions, alive with the desire to investigate, explore, and learn. Furthermore, with so many unprecedented environmental and social challenges facing the world today, we consider it essential that future generations develop the sense of inquisitiveness, intellectual courage, and relentless desire for knowledge that comes from asking questions and seeking answers through research, observation, and experimentation. And where better to engage students in hands-on inquiry investigations than in a living, growing garden?

Take this example, from a Life Lab school garden in California: A second grade teacher had her students plant beans in containers, and then measure and graph the growth of the bean plants over time. When the plants were ready, the students transplanted them into the garden. Over the weekend, however, the plants were eaten. Anticipating her students’ disappointment, the teacher purchased new bean seedlings and announced to the children, "Our plants got eaten, but don't worry! We can start over with new ones."

But the students had questions, and wanted answers before planting another set of seedlings. "Who ate our plants?” they wanted to know. “And how can we protect these new ones from getting eaten?!"

Instead of disappointment, this teacher saw something that morning she wasn't expecting: a burning desire for knowledge. She didn't want to let this opportunity to slip by. And so she gave the students a new challenge: "Let's see if you can find evidence for what kind of animal might have eaten the plants, and then come up with ways to protect the new ones."

Her students examined the garden on hands and knees, looking for snail slime, chew marks, animal hairs, gopher holes, and other signs. They made hypotheses, and then designed plant protection systems that they thought would work. By the end of their study, the garden bed looked more like a miniature carnival than a bed of beans. There were moats around some plants, toothpick cages around others, and black boxes covering others yet. The students checked on their plants every few days, and asked to visit the garden during recess on their off-days.

During each visit, they measured the plants and graphed their growth. They hypothesized about why some grew better than others, even without pest protection. The student with the plant in the black box, for example, learned about plants needing sun and water in addition to protection.

Over the course of their experiments, the students accomplished the teacher’s original goal: To practice measurement and graphing in an engaging context. At the same time, they also learned about plant predation, making inferences based on evidence, and discovering what plants need to grow. And all the while, they were excited to be part of the learning process and eager to share their findings with others. These students were having their first taste of being scientists.

Science often makes the news when a new answer is found: an object in space discovered, a pattern established, or a cure confirmed. Therefore, science is often seen as a set of answers to be learned, understood, or memorized. Actual science, however, is much less certain. Professional scientists do not spend their days trying to memorize answers discovered by those who came before them. Rather they work to solve problems to which answers have not yet been found: "What's happening to the bees? Can we stop Alzheimer's disease? How will climate change impact the landscape over the next 50 years?" When students get to participate in the active process of looking for answers, they get a more accurate understanding of what science is. And many times, they like it much better than they thought they did when they were memorizing the names of each bone in the body.

Asking questions requires an inquisitive, engaged mind. And seeking answers requires intellectual courage, and an understanding of how to observe patterns, make inferences, test hypotheses, and analyze data. These are skills that can quickly atrophy in a school culture focused narrowly on answers. Many educators have probably seen evidence of this when they ask students new to inquiry-based learning what questions they have, and the students look back blankly, as if to say, "I don't understand. What's the right answer to that?"

Fortunately, we have also seen how quickly students can reclaim the curiosity that consumed them when they were younger and first learned to ask, “Why?” Inquisitiveness, courage, and the skills essential to the scientific process flourish in schools where problem solving is encouraged. As students ask questions, lead investigations, and share findings, teachers and parents begin to see a culture shift in their schools, and their students become active, engaged, participants in their own learning.

In the words of a volunteer garden coordinator at a school near San Diego, “I am a scientist with a Ph.D in molecular/microbiology, but I am a mom first. When I came to my son’s 2nd grade class and found that the "science" kids were doing consisted of making dinosaur dioramas, I knew the school needed to do more. I wanted elementary school students to be exposed to true hands-on science. I chose Life Lab to fill the void, because the science was sound. The Life Lab program provides true experiments for students and inspires in them a love of science.”

Whitney Cohen, Life Lab Education Director

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Teaching a Growing Classroom Workshop at @OakSpringGardenFoundation in collaboration with I feel like I’ve fallen into a small French village. This is the former estate of Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon in Virginia. Mrs. Mellon was an avid horticulturalist who designed the White House Rose Garden! I am staying in the room where Jackie Kennedy stayed when she visited here!! Sharing a weekend in this space with teachers who love kids and gardens is a truly unforgettable experience. ... See MoreSee Less

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Just when I thought we’d seen it all ... this is an agrophotovoltaic school garden underneath massive solar panels at @Manzo.Ecology in Tucson. The elementary school students here gather and analyze data on how the shade from the panels helps the plants grow and how the plants help cool the panels and increase their efficiency. What?!?! It’s amazing and gives me hope. Oh, and also they have a desert tortoise in their courtyard. ... See MoreSee Less

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Have you heard?! Life Lab is one of New Leaf Community Markets' recipients of their EnviroToken program at their Westside Santa Cruz store! So get your shopping on, bring your reusable bags, and donate 10¢ to Life Lab with every bag you use! Thank you, New Leaf!
#thankyou, #grateful, #ReduceReuseRecycle, #isupportlifelab
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What happens when Whole Kids Foundation partners with you to bring 50+ leaders from School Garden Support Organizations from across the country together to get to talk shop, inspire each other, problem-solve around shared challenges, and eat amazing food prepared and served by happy 5th graders? MAGIC. That's what happens. #sgso2018 ... See MoreSee Less

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Have you heard?! Life Lab is one of New Leaf Community Markets' recipients of their EnviroToken program for their Westside Santa Cruz store! So get your shopping on, bring your reusable bags, and donate 10¢ to Life Lab with every bag you use! Thank you, New Leaf!
#thankyou, #grateful, #ReduceReuseRecycle, #isupportlifelab
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We are so grateful to be starting 2018 with such strong support! Because of so many generous gifts from our supporters like you, we surpassed our 2017 fundraising goal of $124,000, with all campaign donations totaling $125,835.

These funds will help make Life Lab field trip and summer camp programs possible for children from families and schools that could otherwise not afford them. We believe that ALL children deserve the chance to love learning, healthy food, and nature. Thanks to your support, this year we will serve even more children in Santa Cruz County and across the nation.


#beapartofit, #startingstrong, #changinglives, #isupportlifelab
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Happy almost 2018, Life Lab fans! We are only $809 dollars away from reaching our $124,000 year-end fundraising goal! Before you ring in the new year, will you help us ensure a promising 2018? 100% of the funds necessary to do this important work come from grants and from individuals like you. Will you join us in ensuring that we can continue to deepen and expand our reach, so that even more children can experience the joy of loving learning, healthy food, and nature? Your tax-deductible gift made by midnight tonight will go directly to supporting our programs.
#beapartofit, #changinglives, #optoutside, #gardenbasededucation, #happynewyear
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Life Lab has been the most innovative and relevant organization in this field. From providing the best curriculum to their cutting edge professional development, we have relied on Life Lab as our go to organization for support, ideas, and collaboration.
Rachel PringleSenior Director of ProgramsEducation Outside
Life Lab provides truly inspiring training. Their breadth of experience, joy for teaching, and commitment to sharing knowledge highlight the best practices in food and garden education.
Erica CurryTraining and Professional Development ManagerFoodCorps
Thank you for such a wonderful field trip experience! Your leaders did such a great job at keeping our kids engaged.
Sheila BrickenKindergarten TeacherSan Lorenzo Valley Elementary
Terry had another awesome two weeks at Life Lab. I think he learns more there than in any other part of his year. School is great, but he’s passionate (and often dogmatic) about what he learns there.
Tara NeierCamp ParentSummer camp mom