SRU’s Tower Garden provides learning opportunities for future teachers
Hannah Brewer, Slippery Rock University associate professor of physical and health education, harvests vegetables from SRU’s Tower Garden, an indoor plant growing system that provides educational and professional development opportunities for students in her Nutrition and Wellness course and the Professor Protégé Program.
Dec. 5, 2019
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — At 58 inches high, the Tower Garden doesn't "tower" over the Slippery Rock University students who use the indoor plant growing system. However, as a tool for both classroom learning and professional development, the Tower Garden is helping SRU students reach new heights when it comes to wellness education.
The Tower Garden, located in a Morrow Field House hallway among the offices for the Department of Physical and Health Education, looks like an exotic grocery store display in a produce section. Peas, lettuce, chives and kale are among the plants growing out of the plastic tower's 32 openings. Without access to natural sunlight, the tower is surrounded by four LED columns to provide artificial light for plant growth.
"People are surprised when they see it and wonder if it is even possible to grow plants there," said Stephanie Polach, a freshman early childhood/special education major from Meadville. "I love seeing people's reactions because once they become interested, they start asking questions about eating the vegetables."
Polach is responsible for maintaining the Tower Garden this year. Each year a freshman education major from the College of Education's Professor Protege Program is assigned the project as a professional development opportunity. Professor Proteges are selected from a pool of incoming freshmen applicants and matched with a professor for one-on-one mentorship and professional development opportunities while earning up to $800 in student worker wages. Polach is matched with Hannah Brewer, associate professor of physical and health education, whose junior-level School Nutrition and Wellness course uses the Tower Garden to conduct class projects for wellness teacher education assignments that are appropriate for children in elementary and middle schools.
"We use the Tower Garden for teaching purposes to get our students aware of how it works, how it can be used in schools and why it can used to help kids maintain healthy eating habits," Brewer said. "Healthy lifestyles isn't just taught in a health class or a gymnasium but throughout the whole school. We looked at some of the public schools that are doing a good job of whole-school wellness and one of the components was nutrition. One of the biggest barriers to nutrition among children is lack of fruit and vegetable consumption."
Brewer said that for many schoolchildren, particularly those in urban public schools, getting proper nutrition in their homes is not always a constant and wellness teachers are often shocked to find that children haven't eaten certain types of vegetables or they don't know where vegetables come from.
"(The Tower Garden) is a way to engage the whole school, not just the physical education teachers in terms of promoting wellness among kids," Brewer said. "A lot of kids are hesitant to try new things and they get in a rut with the foods they are used to (eating) that have been introduced at home. The early exposure to vegetables helps them acquire the taste and they feel more comfortable trying new things."
Although Polach's school did not have a similar garden, she was involved in Grow Meadville, a youth leadership program in her hometown that engaged teens with activities including gardening, cooking and community engagement.
"(Nutrition and gardening) is important for anyone, not just children, but when you introduce it to a young age group it clicks in their minds that everyone eats food, so why not make it healthy and grow it on your own?" Polach said. "I don't have a green thumb but I can grow a tomato. Anyone can do it and it's fun."
In maintaining SRU's Garden Tower, Polach replaces the water in the unit and checks the pH levels on a weekly basis. Harvesting takes place throughout the semester, most of which by SRU students who use the tower as a community garden and help themselves when they see something appetizing.
"I love being able to work on a project that I can call my own," Polach said. "I took care of it and watched it grow."
The Professor Protege Program has also helped students grow. The first Protege who cared for the Tower Garden, during its first year on campus in 2016, was Madeline Badaczewski, a senior early childhood/special education major from Gibsonia.
"I loved the Professor Protege Program because it helped me build connections my freshman year that continued all the way through my senior year," Badaczewski said. "Working with Dr. Brewer to figure out the Tower Garden was a fun project and kept me engaged throughout my first year (on campus) and provided a challenge to connect it for use in an early childhood classroom. Watching it continue to sprout year after year keeps me optimistic for the world of education and (the use of towers) in our future classrooms."
To learn more about the Professor Protege Program, click here.
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