SIUE STEM Center urban gardening program helps girls grow


SIUE STEM Center Graduate Assistant Manuel Gomez looks on as a student uses a microscope during the after-school Urban Gardening program. (Photo courtesy of SIUE)

A little rain couldn’t dampen the excitement surrounding a field trip to Edwardsville’s Watershed Nature Center on Tuesday, April 30. Educators brought samples of the Center’s beautiful landscape indoors to allow 15 young girls from Madison to engage in scientific exploration.

The girls, grades 5-8, are participating in the Urban Gardening program led by the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Research, Education and Outreach, in partnership with the Madison County Housing Authority (MCHA) and the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities (MJCH).

The interactive program builds on the MCHA’s Powered by Girls program by emphasizing environmental science and science-based urban gardening techniques. Participants gain hands-on experience solving real-world problems.

“This type of after-school program has been shown to increase student engagement and lifelong interest in STEM topics,” said SIUE STEM Center Instructor and Outreach Specialist Colin Wilson. “It’s a wonderful community partnership that allows us to use resources efficiently, while reaching much of the region with important STEM education.”

SIUE STEM Center Graduate Assistant Manuel Gomez, an environmental sciences master’s candidate from Collinsville, is helping run the program. He’s sharing his passion for sustainability and urban gardening in order to foster the young learners’ excitement for STEM.

“I’ve experienced a lot of environmental degradation, so I have a passion for doing something positive for the environment and protecting our natural resources,” Gomez explained. “The kids love the interactive activities we offer through the Urban Gardening program. We’ve mixed various elements such as vinegar and baking soda and observed their reactions. They’ve made rain barrels. And, we’ve tested soil acidity levels.”

SIUE Environmental Sciences Graduate Assistant and Watershed Nature Center Environmental Educator Danielle Kulina shows students how to measure pH levels. (Photo courtesy of SIUE)

Leading the instruction during the field trip was SIUE environmental sciences graduate student and Watershed Nature Center Environmental Educator Danielle Kulina, of Crown Point, Indiana. She also hosted two other Urban Gardening field trips last week with students from Venice and Collinsville.

“I love science, education and being outdoors, so this work allows me to combine all three interests,” Kulina said. “Working as a graduate assistant and educator for the Watershed Nature Center has offered the most hands-on environmental education experience I could possibly get in graduate school. The Urban Gardening program is wonderful, and we were glad to help educate these eager learners.”

Kulina led participants in testing the pH levels of soil she had collected from the Watershed Nature Center’s prairie and forest habitats. Students also talked about the vegetation of each habitat and used microscopes to get an up-close view of the soil samples.

“This program makes science exciting,” said seventh-grade student Zarria Clark. “I didn’t use to like going outside, but now that I’ve learned different things about the environment, I like to go out and explore.”

“Looking at the soil through the microscope was cool,” exclaimed seventh-grade student Key’Aura Clark.

“We don’t do much like this at my school, so I like getting to go outside, explore and conduct research through this program,” added ninth-grader Malia King.

MCHA Program Director Marie Nelson notes the after-school program’s commitment to assisting young girls as they explore the possibility of a career in STEM.

“This program gives girls the opportunity to participate in and develop their STEM skills in a relaxed, hands-on, fun environment,” Nelson said. “Even if a participant does not decide to become a scientist or an engineer, the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they develop will help them become successful in whatever field they choose.”

The Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Center for STEM Research, Education and Outreach comprises an independent group of researchers and educators, innovating ways to engage students and the public in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Within the SIUE Graduate School, the Center brings together research faculty, graduate students and practitioners to conduct education research.