New Class Provides CTE Exposure to Starkville Students
Assistant Professor Joshua Granger and Extension Associate Marc Measells — two Mississippi State University Forestry Department faculty members — work with students from the Gardening and Overall Wellness (GrOW) class of Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District’s Partnership Middle School (PMS) this spring. Photo by Megan Bean, Mississippi State University (MSU) Office of Public Affairs
Julie White, a Mississippi State University Extension agent who leads the GrOW classroom, poses with a wooden structure students used for gardening activities early in the 2020-2021 academic year before the school’s garden project was completed.
GrOW classroom students plant a tree in March. The tree planting was originally scheduled for Arbor Day but rescheduled because of weather. Photo by Megan Bean, MSU Office of Public Affairs.
The school’s completed garden project is pictured in March. Photo by Megan Bean, MSU Office of Public Affairs.
Students from the GrOW classroom plant trees at PMS this spring. The GrOW classroom is part of a $900,000 Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation grant to promote health and wellness. Photo by Megan Bean, MSU Office of Public Affairs
A unique class funded through a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation grant is providing Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District (SOCSD) sixth and seventh graders basic horticulture and cooking skills that will serve them throughout their lives, and educators are hopeful this introduction to career and technical education (CTE) will steer them toward high school CTE programs.
The 2020-2021 academic year saw the opening of Partnership Middle School, a unique collaboration between the school district and Mississippi State University (MSU) that introduces grades 6 and 7 students to the university’s educational infrastructure and experts all while MSU College of Education undergraduates and graduate students utilize the on-campus facility as a real-world training laboratory. With the new facility came an opportunity to launch a new hands-on, skills-based learning initiative: the Gardening and Overall Wellness (GrOW) classroom.
SOCSD brought in Julie White, an MSU Extension associate, to help refine curricula for the sixth- and seventh-grade iterations of the exploratory class and lead the program in its inaugural year. Each nine weeks saw a new cohort of sixth graders, she said, while seventh graders were year-long participants. Depending on their schedules, students were in class for an hour two or three times each week.
GrOW’s curricula focused on the basics of gardening and wellness by introducing students to horticulture and culinary arts — what students could grow in a garden and cook for themselves and their families. Students from SOCSD’s Millsaps Career and Technology Center’s (MCTC’s) agriculture- and construction-related pathways built wooden planting stations for the class in the first semester before its planned garden was developed, and cooking carts were available for all students.
“The whole point is that we’re growing and cooking everything from the garden. The farm-to-table thing is totally what I’m doing — trying to teach them healthy, sustainable things,” White said. “This is a good age to introduce healthy ideas and build good habits. We teach them to eat better now and how to cook things they can fix for their family, and they learn what things are healthy and what things are not.”
Mindfulness and other mental health-promoting activities are also a cornerstone to GrOW’s curricula. A joint effort with specialists from MSU’s Sanderson Center, the university’s hub for recreation and exercise, produced YoGrOW, a class-specific yoga program with moves and poses that mimic a plant’s life cycle.
“We want students to get the building blocks they’ll need for a full, healthy life that includes nutrition, exercise and other ways to stay healthy. Mental health, for example, is another important building block, especially in times like we are in right now,” White said. “One of the simple things I taught that I think is very appropriate right now: At the beginning of all my classes, I taught students how to properly wash their hands. That’s one of the ways we’re building life skills by teaching the simple things that we should already know at our age but take [others’ knowledge of]for granted. We’re trying to teach the basics so they’re able to have a better position in life now and down the road.”
The class also focuses on big-picture topics related to the class’ fundamentals, including studies of natural resources and their related statewide and national industries; how science, technology, engineering and math are all important to understanding what they’re learning now and how to apply this knowledge in the future; and discussions about clubs and organizations — National FFA Organization and 4-H participation, for example — the students can join to further their education and experiences.
“Everything we do in this class has a hands-on aspect, whether we’re out in the garden or in the classroom working on stuff. I feel like if they’re touching and doing it, they’re learning. That’s what we try to keep going in the classroom — they’re always learning by doing something instead of listening to a bunch of lectures,” White said. “We see them able to have opportunities to be involved and experience things that relate back to the classroom. Any way you can have them relate to things they’ve learned inside the classroom when they’re outside of it is a benefit for them.”
Lenora Hogan, who leads MCTC, said she’s excited to see younger students experience CTE before reaching high school. The GrOW classroom, she said, could serve as a pipeline for future students seeking educational opportunities in the horticulture and agriculture pathways — two fields of study she said experienced a decline in enrollment in the recent past.
“We’ve been trying to make as many connections to younger students and lower grades as we can for the past few years. Before this class started, we’d have agriculture and horticulture students going to the elementary schools for events and pop-up shops. Since GrOW started, our agriculture, horticulture and construction students go over and talk to the students about different things related to their fields,” Hogan said. “We want the middle school students to be able to come tour our facilities if they’re interested in what they’re learning now to see what they could be doing once they get to high school.
“Agriculture and horticulture are important to the state and the nation, and we want to make sure they don’t diminish,” she added. “We need to have young people excited about those fields and ready to step in.”