How Seed Catalogs Turned Into NKE Kids Buying a Farm

Earlier this year, a big pile of old seed catalogs I handed to fourth-grade NKE teacher Emily Anderson during an NKE Arboretum committee meeting took on a life vastly beyond what I had imagined—an opportunity for Project-Based Learning. What is PBL? “Students take charge of their education through hands-on, Project-Based Learning,” explains Ms. Anderson. “PBL  is a dynamic classroom approach in which students boldly explore real-world problems and acquire a deeper knowledge of the content.”

June16Blog-project-based-learning-gardening-LRIdeas for projects may ignite at any time, anywhere, and in this case the old catalogs were perfectly timed for the “Common Core State Standard 4.MS.A.3: Apply the area and perimeter formulas for rectangles in real world and mathematical problems.” Traditionally, this standard is met by teaching students how to measure length, width, and the relationship between the two. However, when Ms. Anderson saw those seed catalogs, an idea struck her, she says: What if, instead of using the pre-created curriculum-based SmartBoard lesson to teach area and perimeter, she created her own project using these catalogs?

And so the Buy a Farm Project was born. Each student received $100,000 to buy a farm. “Initially, students thought $100,000 was a lot of money,” Ms. Anderson says. “That is, until they learned that it also needed to cover the cost of buildings/shelters on their farm, seeds for planting, irrigation systems, equipment (tractors, rototillers, etc.), and farm insurance.”

The project began by students individually choosing which crops they’d like to grow. Next, they researched farm animals and decided if they would like to have animals on their farm, too. After that, they used real-life USDA Agriculture Maps online to determine where the best place would be to purchase land, based on the specific fruits, vegetables and animals they were interested in. They learned about Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening and used the NKE Arboretum to measure and plan their own garden beds.  

A big step was using LandWatch.com to look at real-life properties that are currently for sale in the United States, Ms. Anderson says. Through weeks of research, students could view what may be available with their $100,000. When confident with their decision, students completed a Land Purchase Request. After they “purchased” their individual property, students had to problem solve for housing options. This led to a conversation about risk management, financial literacy, and insurance.  

Insurance—both dwelling and crop protection—was a key player in the Buy a Farm project. Finally, students rounded out the project by creating a map of their farm based on the specific dimensions of their property and how many acres they’d purchased. This map helped them decide and calculate quantities of seeds to purchase from the many different seed catalogs that were on hand. Eventually, if students realized they needed more money than Ms. Anderson had offered, they learned how to write grants to request additional funding.  

During this project, Ms. Anderson played many different roles, she says: teacher, doctor, insurance agent, farmer, employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, meteorologist and seed catalog owner. Students were assessed and evaluated in real time, with real-life scenarios. “It was more than obvious: They were energized by the role-playing opportunities and captivated with the voice and choice woven within this project,” Ms. Anderson says.

The Buy a Farm project was not a task to be completed at the end of a unit to show mastery of standards or skills. Instead, the learning takes place through participating in the project. “I saw a change in my students that astounded me,” she says. “As time went on, it became more apparent that Buy a Farm resulted in more engaged, self-directed 4th graders who took ownership and responsibility for their learning.”

Not bad for a pile of old seed catalogs! How else can our efforts with the Arboretum and outdoor education inspire more experiential learning at NKE? The possibilities are limited only by imagination. If you’d like to get involved in our efforts, please contact NKE Principal Chris Kluck at cjkluck@oregonsd.net. And you can always follow our efforts on Facebook.

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