Connecting University Students and Community through Gardening

Andrea MorrisAndrea Morris and Rudy Pacumbaba’s project set out to be a community garden with nutrition and physical activity education programming. By the NeXC2016 Conference, the dimension of service learning for freshman students at Alabama A&M had been added. At the conference, their exposure to key informants and new technology thinking resulted in “light-bulb” moments that expanded their project with an app, solidified their evolving plan in a concept map and introduced them to Working Out Loud which they plan to apply to achieve more rapid program development in the future. Both Andrea and Rudy are Extension Specialists with Alabama A&M University.

In Huntsville, Alabama, the E-3 Garden Project will soon to be up and running full speed ahead in the community of Edmonton Heights, an underserved community with primarily African-American residents. This innovative eXtension i-Three Issue Corps project represents a blending of two opportunities that came together to Engage, Educate and Empower both residents of Edmonton Heights and freshman students at Alabama A&M University.

“Today’s culture is fluid. It requires vigilance and quick movement on change,” says Rudy. “Working out loud is intuitive and interactive. It provides a new way of conceptualizing and building programs that will enable us to get ideas out early, get feedback, develop programs, test them and respond more rapidly. The working out loud model fits perfectly for this.”

Rudy Pacumbaba, Alabama Cooperative Extension Specialist in urban horticulture, had for some time been eyeing the Crawford Park part of Edmonton Heights adjacent to the Alabama A&M campus as a potential site for a community garden.

He and Andrea Morris, Extension Health and Nutrition Specialist, had collaborated on some work with schools in the past, and both were looking for a new way to do outreach to Edmonton Heights. Together, with Rudy’s skills in garden development and Andrea’s as a nutritionist, they were more likely to succeed at engaging the community on a garden. When Rudy was asked to help the university with a new freshman student service-learning initiative, he and Andrea found the catalyst that would bring their community garden project to life.

“We put those two initiatives together—the community garden and the university’s desire to get students really working in the community,” recalls Andrea. “We saw a way to engage, educate and empower both community and students on topics of nutrition, physical activity, conservation–and of course gardening!”

A Slow but Promising Start

The first phase of the plan—the first service-learning class and site preparation—was launched in spring 2016, and it was anticipated the new garden would be planted at the end of spring semester. However, delays in the start of the growing season pressured the students’ involvement, and they were delayed in getting the project ready. Unfortunately, when that first class was unable to launch the garden before spring semester ended, there were not enough summer students around to hold the service learning class. However, a full class is lined up for fall, and it will finish site preparation and put in a fall crop. ”Delayed, but still going forward,” confirms Rudy, “The university is really excited about it.”

Meanwhile, Andrea is completing her work on developing nutrition and food safety education materials that will be shared by students and community members and available on the web, in education program handouts and even at locations in the garden. Eventually, Andrea plans to add physical education to this list, incorporating physical activity education and stations to complement the gardening work. “It will be a one-stop education place on gardening, food, and exercise. We want participants to get all they can from it,” she says.

Multiple Benefits from the Issue Corps Experience

As Issue Corp members, Rudy and Andrea praise the new-model, highly interactive learning experience they had at the NeXC2016 Conference in March 2016. Some of the highlights of that experience for informing their project include the exposure to emerging technologies, the designathon and working out loud. All of these have prompted changes and enhancements — to their project.

“All of the technology was amazing to me,” says Andrea. “Thinking about it provided us with a light bulb moment.”

SOW AppEarlier, the Alabama Extension’s Home Grounds, Gardens, and Home Pests programming team had created an app called “SOW” for home gardeners. Suddenly they realized they could add it into the E-3 Garden Project to support participants, add more functionality to the project and attract more public notice.

The original SOW app provides individuals throughout Alabama with a planting guide and calendar for planning their gardens by day, month and seasons, with information on what is best to plant at what time, how to grow each plant, potential growing problems and how to address them.

“By integrating the app into our garden project,” says Rudy, “we can use it to schedule and monitor student work times, introduce the student project to Edmonton Heights community gardeners and also encourage community members to start home gardens behind their houses.”

“What better way is there to work with millennial students?” adds Andrea. “It’s a great opportunity for us, for Alabama, and since the idea has not yet been applied in other states, it can go there too—it’s scalable.”

During the designathon, Rudy and Andrea found that concept mapping helped them better define the steps in their project in a way that energized it and got it moving. They’ve shared concept mapping with colleagues, and Andrea is looking forward to using it in the new grant year to develop project proposals.

Finally, Working Out Loud rang a bell for Rudy, who sees it as a breakthrough strategy for the rapid development of any initiative—an essential response required in today’s Extension education environment.

“Today’s culture is fluid. It requires vigilance and quick movement on change,” says Rudy. “Working Out Loud is intuitive and interactive. It provides a new way of conceptualizing and building programs that will enable us to get ideas out early, get feedback, develop programs, test them and respond more rapidly. The Working Out Loud model fits perfectly for this.”