Community Engagement of Plant Biology Students with Alice's Gardens Gardeners

By Anna Concannon

Students in Dr. Michael Schläppi’s Plant Biology course become familiar with plant growth, genetic engineering, evolution and reproduction. They can learn plenty by sitting through lectures and reading the textbook, but the really impactful learning comes from the class’ Service Learning project.

Dr. Schläppi was a SEED Grand recipient for the 2014-2015 school year. Throughout the fall semester, Dr. Schläppi and his students go to Alice’s Garden, an eco-friendly community garden run by volunteers and permanent community gardeners.  The main purpose for this project is to help gardeners with their harvest and collect soil samples to test the quality of the farm land.  They sent the samples to a lab and they will be told the composition of the soil.  Then, students will compare the composition to that of good soil.

Alice’s Garden benefits from the Plant Biology class’ research because the agency formulated the problem by asking, “is our soil good enough for our crops?” and Marquette Service Learners are finding a solution.  If the soil quality on the land is poor, then they will plant cover crops like clover to increase levels of nitrogen.

In addition to the research, students complete around twenty hours of service at Alice’s Garden working alongside a gardener to help harvest and take care of their crops.  When it started getting cold, students helped place compost and cover crops on the plants to prepare them for winter.

Students enjoy that volunteering is more than just reading and listening to lectures.  They are able to participate in active learning, making connections to what they discuss in class by actually seeing and touching the plants.  Dr. Schläppi expressed that this project strengthens the comradery with his students.  “Working on a project together makes it easier for us to approach each other,” Schläppi said.  It also enhances his instruction because they can make connections at the garden to the kinds of plants they learn about in class.

At the end of the semester, Schläppi’s students will write an article about a crop plant of their choice and interview the gardeners they were partnered with, showcasing their work to benefit Alice’s Garden in another way.  And, by taking charge in improving the soil, the garden will produce better crops in the future, thus positively impacting the community.  Because we are located in a “food desert,” Marquette students and their neighbors don’t have much access to fresh foods.  Gardeners from Alice’s Garden can eat or sell their crops at farmer’s markets so community members can have access to healthy foods.

Perhaps the most important reason why Dr. Schläppi incorporates Service Learning in his Plant Biology class is that students engage in community outreach and make a difference to the garden and the community.  When volunteering, “students are either super engaged, or not really engaged,” Dr. Schläppi said.  One gardener told Dr. Schläppi that a student was standoffish at first because the student was outside his comfort zone.  After a while, the student developed a bond with this community grower partner because of their teamwork and getting to know each other.  This story demonstrates that this project is a great chance for students to go into the community and learn more about people of different ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. Additionally, students have the chance to develop gardening skills, an activity seldom done in this area because we are in the heart of the city.

Some of Dr. Schläppi’s former students have formed lasting relationships with Alice’s Garden and continue to volunteer there.  Dr. Schläppi’s hope is that Marquette and Alice’s Garden continue to have an enduring bond to encourage more long-term volunteers and more research projects in the future.


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Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201-1881

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