The Role of School Gardens in Influencing Attitudes of Students Toward Agriculture, Science, and the Environment while Fostering Academic Achievement in Classrooms

Final Report for GNC02-009

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2002: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $20,130.00
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Kathryn Orvis
Purdue University
Expand All

Project Information


Use of the Junior Master Gardener JMG® program in the classroom resulted in increased knowledge and increased positive attitudes in areas of science and the environment. The results imply that the program could be used successfully in the classroom to teach science and environmental education. Because teachers indicated through observations and in post-evaluations that the curriculum was interesting and easy to use, it also implies that the program could be incorporated into areas of current curriculum. One notable observation was that the students had fun doing the program and thus may be more likely to enjoy and stay involved in science and the environment in the future.


Something very special can be observed in children as they explore and nurture a plant or garden. No matter the previous experience of the learner or the age, a child can always find something new to experiment with and learn. Capturing the interest a child has for something as simple as a growing seed can be magical.

Plants and the process of growing plants can be used as a focus for any number of educational subjects. Horticulture, plant science, and gardening can be integrated into every subject area of the elementary school curriculum such as science, mathematics, language arts, and social studies. Horticultural practices and gardening in the classroom can also be used by educators to meet state mandated requirements in multiple subject areas (Cavalier, 1987; Gwynn, 1988; Nelson, 1988; Salisbury, 1989; Markle, 1991; Stetson, 1991; Dwight, 1992; Barron, 1993).

School gardens were something quite common at the beginning of the 19th century, but their occurrence became scarce as time progressed due to various reasons (Shair, 1999; Lyttle, 1998; Fang, 1995; Babcock, 1909). Now, with changes occurring in educational thinking from hands-on and informal learning, to the importance of environmental, science, and nutrition education, school gardening programs are generating more interest.
While teachers are finding new resources available to develop and use a school garden or outdoor classroom, many are still searching for techniques to introduce and incorporate gardening into existing curriculum. Additional teacher concerns arise when they have to gain approval to teach an extra program based on how it fits within academic standards or within areas of standardized testing (DeMarco, 1997). Teachers may also take it upon themselves to facilitate gardening activities without the ability to integrate it into existing curriculum and an already busy schedule. These situations often lead to frustration and ultimately the demise of school gardening.

Although there are various books, activity manuals, websites, and programs available for outdoor learning, many of these programs are new and have not been evaluated for their use in the classroom and with the academic standards. According to a study, teachers and administrators are concerned about the educational merit of programs, as well as logistical requirements (DeMarco, 1997).

The Junior Master Gardener® program is a youth gardening program that can meet some of the educational concerns of teachers and administrators. Developed at Texas A&M University, the program incorporates many areas related to gardening such as science and environmental education, along with providing opportunities for youth to develop responsibility and leadership skills (Welsh, Wettlesey, Seagraves, Hall, & Harlow, 1999). Within the separate leader and student guides, the topics follow eight chapters ranging from horticulture and ecology, to fruits and nuts and vegetables. In each of the eight chapters there are four to six teaching concepts, each a set of group activities and individual activities. At the end of each chapter, groups are encouraged to perform a community service project pertaining to the knowledge presented in the chapter. Currently the JMG program has two levels, One and Two. Level One is arranged for students in grades 3 through 5, and Level Two for grades 6 through 8.

Because the JMG program was originally developed as an extra-curricular program and there is little documentation or research about its use in the classroom, the overall objective of this research was to pilot test and evaluate the program in a classroom. Through a series of activities specifically chosen for 3rd grade classrooms by the researcher, the JMG program was quantitatively evaluated for science achievement and attitudes towards science, horticulture, and the environment. This pilot study specifically addresses students’ ability to gain knowledge and positive attitudes while using the JMG curriculum in the classroom. The overall evaluation of the program in the classroom was determined with qualitative methods of classroom observations during the program participation and post-program evaluations.

To meet the needs and concerns of teachers in this study, Indiana State Academic Standards for Math, Language Arts, and Science were matched to all individual and group activities. A Fast Track, a set of suggested activities for the classroom created by Texas A&M University, was revised to meet many different third grade standards and for time requirements. In this pilot study, teachers were given 10 to 12 weeks in the spring semester to complete a series of activities specifically chosen by the researcher (Fast Track) for use in third grade classrooms. A set of lesson plans was also created by the researcher for all the activities in the Fast Track. JMG® curriculum, lesson plans, and supplies were all given to participating Indiana third grade classrooms at a whole day teacher training workshop.

The objectives were to test knowledge and attitude against the null hypothesis that there is no change in knowledge, and that attitudes of science, the environment and agriculture do not change with implementation of the JMG® program. Secondly we wished to understand through student and teacher evaluations, and observations, how the program fit within the classroom and how the participants reacted to it.

Project Objectives:

This study set out to answer the following:
1) Using the Junior Master Gardener program and a knowledge instrument developed for this study, was there a greater level of knowledge post-test scores as compared to pre-test?
2) Using the Junior Master Gardener program and an attitude instrument developed for this study, were there more positive attitudes towards science, the environment, and agriculture from pre- to post-assessments?
3) Through the use of post-program evaluations, how did the teachers and students evaluate the Junior Master Gardener program and its effect in the classroom?
4) What did observational data reveal about the teachers’ and students’ reactions to and opinions about the program?

These objectives were tested against the null hypothesis that there was no change in science achievement, and that the students’ attitudes of science, the environment and agriculture did not change with participation in the JMG® program.

Ho: The use of the JMG program in third grade classrooms will have no effect upon student knowledge or attitudes towards science, the environment, or horticulture.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Amy Robinson-Dirks


Materials and methods:

Research Design
This study utilized a mixed methods approach to address formative, dynamic and summative data. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used for this purpose.
Quantitative data were acquired pre and post program through the use of a created instrument to measure knowledge level. This particular instrument utilized multiple choice and matching questions to access knowledge level of science, horticultural, and environmental concepts. Additional quantitative data of student’s attitudes of the above topics were collected through a created, simplified Likert-scale also administered pre and post program.
Qualitative data were acquired through both questionnaires and observations. The post-program questionnaires were also created by the researcher and used to capture the opinions and thoughts of the program from both the teachers and students. Observations were made within each classroom by the researcher as the teacher and students participated in a JMG activity. These observations were used to gain a better understanding of teacher’s individual teaching styles, classroom/school dynamics, and similarities and differences within each classroom.

Quantitative Instrument
The instruments used for quantitative data measured student’s short term knowledge gain and short term changes in attitudes concerning gardening, science, and the environment. This was achieved through pre-post testing using a two-part test composed by the principle investigator. The first part consisted of 8 multiple choice and 8 matching questions designed to test knowledge of environmental, horticultural, and science concepts. The attitude scale consisted of a simplified Likert-type scale to evaluate 28 statements about gardening, science, and the environment. Both pretest and posttest asked the same questions with the addition of demographic questions on the end of the pretest. A copy of the instruments can be found in Appendix C.
The instruments used for the quantitative portion of the research were created by the researcher for this particular study from numerous examples (Ary, Jacobs, & Razavieh, 2002; Earthman, Richmond, Peterson, Marczac, & Betts, 1999; Leeming & Dwyer, 1995). No evaluation for JMG used in the two previous studies had been available, and all standardized inventories in existence either were not at the appropriate age level or did not test the particular topics covered in the JMG program. A previous set of unpublished questions had been developed for an Indiana state JMG evaluation by Dr. Kathryn Orvis and Christy Shelbourne (Orvis, personal communication). The test consisted of several questions for each of the eight JMG chapters and of these, 16 were chosen in multiple choice and matching formats to assess knowledge. Attitude tests from similar studies were used to help create an appropriate instrument (Trochim, 2001; Trobe & Acott, 2000; Musser & Diamond, 1999; Waliczek & Zajicek, 1999; Skelly & Zajicek, 1998; Leeming & Dwyer, 1995; Musser & Malkus, 1994; and Arnold, n.d.).
Content and age appropriateness of both tests was evaluated by a program evaluation expert and a youth development program specialist within the department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education at Purdue University. A youth plant science specialist and a team of two other extension educators familiar with the program also evaluated the tests for their content validity. The researcher had the additional recommendations by a youth literacy professor in the School of Education at Purdue University.

Qualitative Instruments and Techniques
After the program was implemented in the classrooms for three weeks, the teachers were contacted to schedule time for the researcher to make observations. The scheduling of the observation was based on the teacher’s schedule and when the JMG lesson was to occur. The researcher then visited the classroom to observe the teacher and students participating in a JMG lesson or activity.
Observations were based on a non-participatory role. The classroom setting, the teacher’s teaching style, the student’s behavior, and the teacher’s behavior were recorded. Each participating classroom was visited once. An attempt was made to visit all classrooms a second time and was successful at all but two schools. One classroom was visited on a weekly basis. Only two of the visitations were used for this study. The additional data from that classroom will provide the basis for a future case study manuscript.

Data Analysis
Quantitative data was entered and analyzed using Statistical Analysis System (PC-SAS version 8). ANOVA and Matched T-tests were utilized. Descriptive statistics used to analyze the data included: frequencies, medians, modes, ranges, percentages, and standard deviations. The results of the statistical analysis were used to organize, summarize and interpret the data.

Research results and discussion:

Studies have shown that youth gardening programs can have several positive effects on children. Some of these effects include areas of psychological and social development, academic skills and learning, positive eating choices, and environmental awareness. Particularly interesting is how gardening programs can be and have been used in schools. Studies have found that the hands-on informal learning that is involved in gardening can help motivate students to learn and enjoy school curriculum. Yet, even with all the researched benefits and increasing interest, school gardening is not common at this time in Indiana.

Teachers and administrators have many concerns that often limit the development or use of a school garden. These worries can be divided into two areas, logistical and educational. There are concerns of the development and sustainability of an outdoor classroom or garden area. What is often most important to their decision to invest time and money into such a project, is how the garden will be connected to curriculum, especially at a time when state standards and testing are at the forefront.

The Junior Master Gardener program, a youth gardening program that uses hands-on, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning, was chosen to be evaluated for use in the classroom. Because it has interdisciplinary curriculum and is connected to state and national standards, this program could meet the educational needs and concerns of school administrators and educators.

The overall objective of the study was to determine the usefulness of the program in the classroom and how the teachers and students react to it. Because there is little previous research about this program or any other gardening program in the classroom, this study was designed as a pilot study. Quantitative and qualitative methods were used to capture the overall picture of the program in the classroom.
Instruments were designed to evaluate JMG based on knowledge or attitude change by the students participating in the program. The null hypothesis stated there would be no change in participating student’s knowledge or attitude towards science, the environment, or horticulture. Results from the use of quantitative and qualitative methods allowed the researcher to reject the null and accept the alternative hypothesis that this program had a positive effect on the participants based on the tests used.

One of the specific objectives of the study was to evaluate whether participation in the program would significantly elevate students’ knowledge levels in science, agriculture and the environment. As described previously, the JMG curriculum consists of several topic areas including horticulture and the aforementioned topics. The test was written based on the JMG curriculum which had been previously evaluated and assigned National Science Standards for third grade.

Results indicated overall significant gains in knowledge for participating classrooms. By classroom comparison, the majority of classrooms achieved significant positive gains in pre versus post knowledge. This supports the conclusion that the students learned information from participation in the JMG program.
The attitude portion of the instrument also received positive results. Results indicated not only significant gains overall, but also gains within a majority of the participating classrooms when compared by individual classroom. Because the test is a simplified version of a Likert-scale specifically developed for the developmental stage of third graders, this does not indicate how strongly students’ attitudes changed positively.

Results of the student evaluations showed a general positive attitude towards the program. The most interesting finding was that students learned that they could not live without plants. This is especially interesting since the survey by Relf, McDaniel, and Butterfield (1992) found that despite environmental education, less than 50% of the respondents (46%) believed that the natural world is essential to their well-being. This information was most likely gained through activities like Plant Products and Plant Parts We Eat, and Gas Gobblers. The Plant Products and Plant Parts We Eat lessons focus on the many things made from plants and the importance of plants to our diet. The Gas Gobblers lesson reinforces the interdependence of animals and plants for exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Students also indicated on the evaluation if they participated in community service projects and what task they performed. The majority responded that they had done a service project, many mentioning cleaning up areas of litter and weeds, and planting a garden. Although several classrooms chose to do their community projects at their own school, a few occurred outside of the school at places nearby. This indicates that the program can increase service-learning and impact students to connecting to their communities.
Another deduction from the evaluation and observations indicated both the students and teachers enjoyed doing the activities. Several students indicated that they shared what they learned with others. Through reports from teachers and observations, students asked to do more activities or the same activities again. Teacher evaluations pointed out several positive responses with many focusing on positive student changes in behavior and that they themselves enjoyed the program. Several indicated that they replaced all or some of their science curriculum with the JMG curriculum. The teachers’ and students’ positive responses to the questionnaires strengthen the probability that the teachers will use the curriculum and supplies again with future classes.

Costs for supplies to run the program was a concern not only mentioned in the teacher evaluation, but was also mentioned when the researcher was in classrooms to do observations.
Concerns could be addressed by providing information on grants and other ways to raise money for a school garden and supplies, to those who request JMG curriculum or a training session.

Observations in the classroom during the JMG activities were extremely useful. The richness of qualitative data these opportunities provided helped to further understand the results of the quantitative data.

Based on this study, overall the instruments were successful in determining knowledge level and attitudes, although further editing is still needed. This study utilized testing instruments created by the researcher. There was no previous testing or measures of reliability for the instruments, although several individuals evaluated the tests for content validity and reading level. Testing was conducted in this study on each question of both knowledge and attitude instruments. Each question was evaluated for pre versus post performance.
The knowledge test achieved significant differences on all but two questions out of the total of sixteen. These questions may be excluded or rewritten for future use. These insignificant values may indicate that the students might have guessed. This could indicate that the test questions were too hard, containing vocabulary or concepts that were not covered within the program.

Also, because the instrument was created by the researcher with the JMG curriculum topics in mind, it is unknown if this method was particularly the best type of testing for the informal and hands-on format of the JMG program. Knowledge gain could simply be from rogue memorization or guessing. In the future, to test for higher levels of learning the instrument could be changed to application or story problem based testing.

The attitude scale will also be reevaluated and rewritten for clarity because of several questions that had a lack of significance in differences between pre and post performance. This could be because the instrument may have been written to test the values of the students, which are formed over long periods of time and are more resistant to change.

There are other limitations to this study that effect how strongly we can accept the positive results. First, classrooms participated on a voluntary basis by teachers or principals. These teachers and administrators may have already been convinced of gardening benefits or interested in gardening programs. Some participating teachers had school gardening experience, while others had little previous experience. This variable was not taken into account or analyzed according to their influence on the student and teacher responses. Also, some schools already had existing school gardens or gardening programs. This may have influenced student and teacher attitudes towards gardening. These students may have indicated little change in attitude because they started at an already positive attitude level prior to the program implementation.

In addition, participating classrooms are from mainly rural or suburban areas. These students may have had previous exposure to agriculture and gardening. This may have led to high levels of knowledge and attitudes towards gardening and the environment. Also, because of these locations, demographics were not very diverse among classrooms. The researcher’s previous experience with using the JMG® program in her previous employment could have also influenced the observations and results.

While the scope of this pilot study was limited, the results seem to be in agreement with previous studies indicating how gardening can successfully be used in the classroom, and the ability to positively influence students.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Master of Science in Education: completed by Amy Dirks
Title: An Evaluation of the Junior Master Gardener (R) Program in Indiana 3rd Grade Classrooms.

Manuscripts in Preparation:
1) A. Dirks and K. S. Orvis. 20xx. Case Study of the Mighty Morris Blooms: Quantitative and Qualitative Program Assessment of a Youth Gardening Program in a 3rd Grade Classroom. Submitted 3/04 to Journal of Environmental Education.

2) A. Dirks and K. S. Orvis. 20xx. An Evaluation of the Junior Master Gardener (R) Program in 3rd Grade Classrooms. Manuscript in preparation, will be submitted to HortTechnology.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

In this pilot study a youth gardening program was introduced and incorporated into the formal atmosphere of the classroom. Analysis based on the quantitative and qualitative results indicate that overall, the Junior Master Gardener program was useful to teachers as curriculum that could be incorporated into the current classroom setting and subject areas. This study indicated four main areas of interesting results: increased knowledge gain in areas of science and the environment, positive attitude gain in areas of science and the environment, the program’s ease of use as indicated by the teachers, and students “had fun” while participating in the program. The program was not only a motivating factor for classrooms to utilize current garden areas, but also facilitated the creation of several new school gardens.

Increased knowledge and positive attitudes suggests that the program has academic merit as well as the potential to increase attitudes in the topic areas of science, horticulture, and the environment. This can imply that the JMG program can be used effectively in the classroom to teach science and environmental education in an interdisciplinary manner.

Along with the quantitative data from the students, qualitative results indicated the program to be interesting and favorable for teachers to use in the classroom. Teacher post-program evaluations indicated strong interest in the program and an ease of use of the materials. This made it possible for the teachers to incorporate the JMG lessons and topics to be into all areas of current curriculum. Observation provided examples of the teachers integrating the curriculum into other subject areas, extending the activity time beyond what was suggested, and substituting JMG for their current science curriculum. This indicates that teachers can incorporate the JMG program as part of their classroom curriculum.

Furthermore, reactions by the students were positive as can be seen through self-reported evaluations and classroom observations by the researcher. The students were interested, and reported “having fun” while learning through the use of JMG activities and curriculum. This does not indicate that the curriculum was easy for the students. Yet, since the students were interested in the activities and curriculum, it proved to the students that subjects such as science are not scary, hard, or boring. Once becoming interested in topics such as science and the environment, it is hoped that they will be more likely to stay interested and involved in these areas for the future


Areas needing additional study

  • Quantitative instrument(s) need some adjustment and should be pilot tested again.

    If conducted again, participants should include more diverse areas, including inner-city or urban schools.

    Full scale research project, conducted with balanced control groups.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.