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Tucson school uses garden, ecology projects to teach math

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TUCSON – Kindergartners use a long wooden stick with inch-spaced marks to make sure carrot seeds planted in Manzo Elementary School’s garden will grow without crowding each other. In the process, they’re learning units of measure.

Third-graders log when they start and stop churning compost bins filled with plant matter and cafeteria scraps to learn how to calculate time spent on their shifts.

When produce, eggs and fish raised by students are ready to sell at a twice-monthly farmers’ market, fifth-graders work the register, learning to make change.

At this school serving an underserved area, students learn math concepts by working with one greenhouse, two tilapia fish tanks, two soil gardens, eight compost bins, 14 chickens and 17,000 gallons of rainwater collected in 15 tanks – all part of an ecology project teaching sustainability principles.

Mark Alvarez, Manzo’s principal, said linking classroom math with ecology has been key to increasing the school’s standardized math test pass rate from 18 percent to almost 50 percent in the past two and a half years.

“The hardest part of learning math is making a connection to something real and practical, so that over time a deeper, sustained understanding of math happens instead of just memorizing multiplication tables that are forgotten,” he said.

Alvarez said he anticipates even better scores over the next few years when today’s kindergartners become fifth-graders who’ve had six years of ecology-based math lessons.

Manzo teachers said that while many schools have gardens or other ecology projects to teach sustainability lessons, theirs is different because its many components, which also includes a desert tortoise habitat and bird sanctuary, allow math lessons for all grade levels.

“Instead of closing our math books at the end of counting-problem exercises, we go and count how many seeds have germinated or how many new leaves a plant has, and that makes the lessons stick,” said Angela Moore, a first-grade and English language development teacher.

Wes Oswald, a third-grade teacher, said he has seen the farmers’ market make math more meaningful to students.

“When they are struggling to make change and see the long line with some impatient faces, they suddenly realize why math is important,” he said.

Oswald said he also has seen math successes trigger confidence and determination.

“The kids don’t just have improved math skills; they see the meaning of math and have an attitude of, ‘I need to learn this, so I will learn to do this,’” he said.

Aralexie Robles, a fifth-grader, said it took a lot of math know-how for students to build the school’s desert tortoise habitat.

“We had to use geometry to figure out how many feet the area needed to be, how many feet high to make the wall, how far to space the plants and how big to make the space that our tortoise crawls into,” she said.

Adelita S. Grijalva, president of Tucson Unified School District’s governing board, said she first visited Manzo several years ago as part of a school closure review. What she saw convinced her that it should remain open.

“I was surprised to find such a comprehensive, data-driven math curriculum linked to a such an extensive ecology project, a curriculum not available at any other school,” she said.

Kristel Foster, another school board member, said that Manzo’s math instruction methods are a “bona fide example of project-based learning.”

“Their math curriculum involves learning not just for learning’s sake in order to pass tests but learning that teaches them to function in the everyday world,” she said.

Seven years ago, Moses Thompson, the school’s counselor and its ecology system designer and builder, started Manzo’s first garden as an alternative location to his office, which he said didn’t seem the right spot for meeting with students.

Thompson said that the more complex the school’s ecology project has become, the fewer behavior crises he has had to manage.

“Though that can’t be measured as easily as math pass rates, it’s been important,” he said.