Molly Samuel had as much fun yanking radishes out of the ground as the four-year-olds she worked with in a University of Georgia service-learning course.
“I’d never gardened before this class,” Samuel said. “Learning how to garden and grow it myself was rewarding and it’s rewarding for the kids, too. It’s much better to learn through experience.”
Samuel is one of 12 undergraduates in a class taught by Bridget Ratajczak, a clinical instructor in communication sciences and special education at UGA, and Anne Shenk, the director of education at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a unit of Public Service and Outreach. The course, called “Nature as Teacher,” brings College of Education students into the Clarke County School District’s Early Learning Center (ELC), where Ratajczak is the professor-in-residence, to work with Pre-K and Head Start students in a program dubbed “Nature Explorers Club.”
The program aims to show young children where their food comes from and reinforce the importance of eating healthy. Each half-hour session starts with a puppet show to introduce concepts and is followed by activities in a garden behind the ELC. Each lesson builds on the previous week until the class makes salads with ingredients they’ve grown, including those radishes, during the semester.
“This is definitely more involved and rewarding than just going and having someone do observations,” said Virginia Caswell, one of the UGA students. “Being able to expose them to these novel experiences that they don’t get (otherwise) … is awesome.”
This is the fourth year Shenk and Ratajczak have taught the course, which combines lesson-plan development in the classroom with implementation in the garden. Shenk spoke about the course’s evolution during the Office of Service-Learning’s 10th Anniversary Showcase. Service-learning is jointly supported by the vice presidents for Public Service and Outreach and Instruction.
“The students learn about teaching science in a hands-on way,” Shenk said. “They get a sense of teaching with their own curriculum they’ve developed at an early stage (in their careers).”
One class in April focused on insects, giving a group of 4-year-olds a chance to look at live crickets. The college students practiced the lesson in class the week before to get comfortable with the insects. Ratajczak said one of the important lessons for future teachers is understand that how they react will affect how the children respond to different things in nature.
Ratajczak said she’s found her undergraduate students often have a lot of passion and are eager to make a difference out in the world. Service projects like Nature Explorers Club allows them to make an impact as part of their education.
“It’s different because we’re actually in the community,” Samuel said. “We enjoy being with the kids. It’s good to be actually doing stuff than just sitting in a classroom.”