Friday, June 24, 2016

Building a Raised Bed Garden: Makerspace & PBL

At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, one of our Spanish teachers approached me with an idea.  Her primary grade Spanish classes were studying migration patterns of Monarch butterflies as a way to make connections between our region and different Spanish speaking countries in Central America, and she wanted to try to create a garden that would help promote the survival of the species.  The idea seemed like a great way for the two of us to collaborate, and it turned out that her timing could not have been perfect. The very next week, local businesses were giving away seed packets that contained milkweed, the plant that the Monarch butterfly caterpillars need for food.  We each picked up some seed packets and began working out plans.

I began the 2015-2016 year with an email newsletter to our parents explaining that one of the goals for the year would be to work with students to build the garden, and within a few minutes, one of our parents responded to the newsletter with information about a way we could actually make it happen with help from the University of Kentucky Campbell County Extension Cooperative.  We reached out to DJ Scully at the Cooperative, and within a few meetings we had a good plan for where the garden would fit and how we might fund it through the writing of a grant.  We were so fortunate to have been awarded the grant within just a few short months!

We looked for ways to try to encourage full school participation in the project, but the best scenario turned out to be to have fourth graders use the project as inspiration for one of their project based learning options, while our Spanish teacher covered migration patterns and life cycle with the primary aged students. 

The Task

For this particular project, I challenged students to learn about how to build a raised bed garden, identify the materials we would need within the budget of the grant that we were awarded and learn about what we would need to do to create a habitat for Monarch butterflies to survive. 

4th Grade Standards

  • NGSS - 4-LS1-1 Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior and reproduction
  • NGSS - 3-5-ETS1-1 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time or cost.
  • NGSS - 3-5 ETS 1-2 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  • NGSS - 3-5- ETS1-3 Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.
  • CCSS - RI 4.1 - Explain procedures in a scientific or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific evidence
  • CCSS RI 4.9 - Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably
  • CCSS W.4.7 Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic. 

Driving Questions

Over 3 classes, there were 8 groups who chose to work with the butterfly garden idea.  As part of a year long study of developing their own guiding questions, I gave students the freedom to write their own questions based on the task and their personal interest in the topic. After conferencing and discussion approved questions included:
  • How do you build a raised bed garden, what materials do you need and how can we protect the environment from deer?
  • How do you build a raised bed garden and how do you create an environment that will be safe for monarch butterflies to survive?
  • How do you build a raised bed garden and how will we attract butterflies to the garden?


For the extended inquiry, we received some of the resources we would need from Mr. Scully.  The kids all watched two videos about raised bed gardening and read some information about creating the right environment.   The kids also took notes over their individual focus questions regarding deer and habitat.  

We use the Big6 model of research, and the kids all have a standard set of graphic organizers they use through the process.  For the kids in the butterfly group - with these resources to start them off, they really demonstrated a great deal of success. 

Through conversations with students, I found them really going deep with their topics.  On their own they were researching materials and cost on websites like Home Depot and Lowes, they were calculating the amount of dirt needed using area and perimeter of the proposed bed sizes and bag size, and they were passionately discussing things like composting, deer control, organic gardening, water collection and flower bed arrangement. 

The kids in the butterfly garden groups took the lead of students researching aquaponics and asked me to create a Padlet for them to post ideas and share resources across classes

Throughout the inquiry process, the kids demonstrated a great deal of focus and ownership.  In their research they found many ways they would like to extend the original scope of the project, and I think in the future the entire school community will find many ways to expand the project. 


Once students were finished with their research we were able to purchase the materials needed to build the raised bed garden, with input from our local expert, Mr. Scully.  On one morning we were able to have the kids work in small groups to build the beds.  All wood was precut, so all the kids had to do was assemble. Mr. Scully gave the kids directions for how to assemble the beds and use the power tools and then we were able to turn the kids loose.  Groups took turns using the power tools, and documenting the steps using note taking strategies, photos and videos. 

Here's a time lapse video one of the groups took - faces blurred:
Once the beds were built, students followed directions to prepare milkweed seeds for planting.  We had to refrigerate the seed and wait about 30 days to plant the milkweed so that gave us time to get dirt delivered and the beds into the ground. 

In all, this year we built 4 raised beds.  We planted milkweed and plants to attract butterflies in two of the beds and the other two beds we plan to use for rotating different types of vegetables and flowers.  The milkweed went in a little late in the season, so we're concerned it did not actually germinate.  If that is the case, we will try again in the fall.  

Future Plans

It is my sincere hope that the raised bed garden is the beginning of many learning opportunities.  Students have already mentioned wanting to try composting and organic vegetable gardening as well as building additional beds and creating a system to collect water in rain barrels. The garden has the potential to inspire many different grade levels with future project based learning, and will hopefully become a great habitat for Monarchs.


This learning experience was very successful for all groups involved.  I think it really helped having an expert to consult through the entire process. Students are really invested in the success of the garden and have plans to talk with teachers about collaborating further to expand.  In fact, without my knowing it, a small group of students hosted a bake sale and lemonade stand during a community garage sale and raised almost $200 to donate to the garden cause.  We were able to use that money to buy some fencing as a way to deter deer. 

I believe the raised bed gardens alone will provide the school community with ongoing learning experiences.  I know that we may not be successful this year in creating the right habitat for preserving Monarch butterflies, but over the next few years it is something that we can work towards.


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