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EarthBox

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  Afterschool Expert   Science Expert  

Review Synopsis: by science content expert Nick Stroud

EarthBox is a self-contained growing system that uses tested agricultural methods to grow plants indoors or outdoors. Supporting materials include a curriculum and guide for creating a garden, both designed for middle school students. Similar materials are available for elementary and high school students, though they were not reviewed for this project. The most engaging and worthwhile science activities are those that test the effects of environmental conditions on the growing of plants. Owing to the nature of growing plants (plants take weeks or months to grow and need to be watered consistently), these activities (and the EarthBox in general) are best suited for afterschool programs that can devote many weeks to a project, meet frequently, and have are led by instructors familiar with, and enthusiastic about using gardening as a vehicle for engaging students in the life sciences growing plants.
Full Review:
EarthBox allows anyone with access to 6-8 hours of sunlight per day to grow plants indoors or outdoors. First developed for tomato gardeners to avoid floods and other environmental catastrophes, the growing container can be used to grow almost any type of plant. If you decide to purchase the EarthBox for an afterschool program, it is advisable to buy one for each group of four or five kids since the most engaging activities require two or more boxes and the opportunities for students to “get their hands in the garden” increase if there are enough Earth Boxes for small groups to work together on their own mini garden.

The EarthBox is simple to set up and use. Its pieces assemble easily and fit naturally together. They seem durable (an important consideration for afterschool settings) and can be used multiple times. In fact, each EarthBox is meant to be used for many years, so the initial investment is spread over multiple years. As with any large package, it is important to check the contents to make sure you received all that you expected (mine did not have the instructional booklet in it). A space to leave the EarthBox is an important consideration; absent such a place to leave the box where it will not be disturbed, it could be a poor fit for an afterschool program.

Though the EarthBox itself is easy to set up, a prospective instructor should plan to spend some time reviewing the supporting materials. The instructional DVD, the curriculum and "Garden Guide" provide a great deal of information, but the instructor or program leader would have to use them to build an appropriate and coherent program. While the EarthBox resources may not be appropriate for all afterschool programs, if instructors share an interest in using the garden as a vehicle for teaching science and providing students with hands-on, active opportunities, this could be a very useful way to build a multi-session science activity.

EarthBox includes five units covering water, light, soil, plants, and nutrition. The science topics presented in these units are basic (appropriate for middle-school-age kids) and are often explained in straightforward language that would be sufficient to provide background information even for instructors without any scientific training. Instructors with some experience in the garden would be in a position to add to the lessons in a way that students could follow their own sense of curiosity and interest in plants. If instructors are able to supplement the lessons labeled "guided-inquiry," their students will be able to move beyond the basic structure of the activities, which provide the guidance necessary to set up the experiment, take measurements, and fill out worksheets.

The most engaging and worthwhile activities (from a science perspective) are those that involve testing the effect of environmental conditions on plant growth. For example, one activity has kids test the effect of soil pH on the height of bean plants. These experiments require substantial resources to conduct, as they require two or more Earth Boxes, accessories such as grow lights, and the time to set up and water plants over the course of many weeks.

In the curriculum instructions provided, one of the suggestions is to use individual lessons as stand-alone activities. This seems to be the most appropriate mode for afterschool programs, as kids and instructors can pick one activity that interests them and focus on that one activity for an extended period. As such, the EarthBox acts best as a supplement to existing programs, not as an entire program by itself.

The EarthBox includes a booklet called the" Garden Guide." It includes an "Introduction," "Pre-garden Activities," "Workforce Development," and "Data Collection and Analysis" sections. The last section is specifically tailored to scientific practices in gardening and if used in a way that supports the garden activities, can help kids develop skills that real scientists need, such as graphing, data collection, and skill at identifying patterns.

The "Garden Guide" may be especially attractive for programs hoping to add some science skills to an established or newly started gardening unit. Even though the Earth Box is much easier to establish than a typical outdoor garden, preparing space and setting up a full working garden requires the commitment of resources and the flexibility to monitor and tend the garden throughout an entire growing season. For those afterschool programs where this level of commitment is possible, the "Garden Guide" provides techniques and tools to optimize the garden's impact.

Overall, the EarthBox and its supporting materials are most suitable for afterschool programs that meet frequently, can devote many weeks to a project, and have instructors with some prior experience of gardening.