Miami Northwestern students visit organic garden

By Cochrane

It’s officially known as the “People’s Garden,” and it lived up to its billing Friday, Sept. 16, when 50 students from Miami Northwestern Senior High School visited FIU’s organic garden and nature preserve. The teenagers were hosted by FIU students, who shared their passion for gardening and sustainable living.

The garden tour was the first meeting between the Miami Northwestern students and the FIU faculty and students who are involved in the creation of an aquaponics laboratory and organic garden at the high school.

“We are very excited about this whole program, and I know you are,” professor Mahadev Bhat said, greeting the 50 Northwestern students to the FIU Organic Garden. “You will have an opportunity to build a garden like this at your school. The most exciting part of what we do here is our students were like you four or five years ago. They came from high school and then became interested in organic gardening.”

Added professor Krish Jayachandran, “A lot of what you’re going to see today were ideas that came from our students.”

The project is part of a new university-community partnership between FIU, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and JPMorgan Chase to support educational achievement in Liberty City. Dubbed The Education Effect, the initiative is made possible through a three-year, $1 million grant funded by JPMorgan Chase.

Garden discoveries

The students spent two hours touring the various areas of the organic garden, including the community plots, herb and medicine garden, shade house, compost area, fruit grove, meditation garden, biofuels area and nature preserve. At each stop in the garden, an FIU student led the conversation with the high schoolers, explaining both the science of the garden and their personal love of the place.

“We have lost our connection to nature,” said FIU student Alba Gosalbez. “The more a person is in nature working with soil, hugging a tree, the happier you get.”

The Northwestern students had plenty of questions: What’s sustainability? Can you put dog poop in a compost pile? What do you mean by “pristine soil”? A couple of students asked if they could take a plant home, and were given lemongrass straight from the edible garden.

Northwestern junior Derek Rodriguez said visiting the garden renewed his interest in science, a subject he has always enjoyed but struggled with.

“I was never good in science, but I have more motivation to try to figure it out,” he said. “Because I don’t understand it, I try to understand it.”

Northwestern student Shalom Colon was especially intrigued by pineapple seedlings in the shade house. “That’s a pineapple?” she asked. “They’re so cute.” Colon took photos and video with her cell phone throughout the morning. “I’m going to show it to my classmates and put in on Facebook and say, ‘Look what I learned today!’ ”

‘An eye-opening experience’

Graduate student Stephany Alvarez-Ventura, agroecology program manager in the Department of Earth and Environment, says the teenagers weren’t the only ones who learned something from the interaction.

“About 15 students helped conduct the tour. This was a great peer-learning opportunity for them,” she says. “The students were placed in areas they’ve conducted research on, and I combined newer students with seniors so that these students could learn how to conduct future tours.”

Cecilia A. Gutierrez-Abety, partnership director for The Education Effect, says the Northwestern students “adored” the FIU students.

“They gained so much through the personal stories and passion for what the FIU students are learning and growing,” says Gutierrez-Abety. “The conversations and interactions really have an impact.”

That’s precisely the point. A key over-arching goal of The Education Effect is to demystify the college experience and process for the teenagers so they begin to see post-secondary education as an attainable goal.

Says Gutierrez-Abety, “This was an eye-opening experience for the Miami Northwestern students and teachers. Far beyond the composting, this was an opportunity for them to interact and be inspired by FIU student scholars. They returned to school exhausted and exhilarated and have been talking about the experience ever since.”