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Research Communications

How a secret garden can teach the community about sustainability 

Sarah Minkin

By Philip Barnes

Poking out of a field along the Athens Hockhocking Adena bikeway, a small, circular bamboo forest may not get more than a passing glance from the casual observer. But if you venture off the path and come closer, a tunnel becomes visible through the brush. It's an enchanting, undercover entryway to the West State Street Research Site, known better by some as the Ohio University Gardens.

Ohio University environmental studies graduate student Sarah Minkin is no stranger to the place. With her peers, professors, and community members, she treats the garden as a patch of sustainable practice, where crops and flowers can be grown without the use of fertilizer, pesticides, or anything harmful to the environment. But Minkin notes that she's interested in more than growing plants; she is interested in education.

"Sustainability education does not translate to gardening or purchasing local food from local distributors. It is more than that," she says. "In my opinion, sustainability education is very much about providing a framework for examining the world."

Sarah Minkin Photo by Ben SiegelMinkin has been drawn to the topic of sustainability since her days as an undergraduate student at Ohio University, when she received a Provost's Undergraduate Research Fund award to travel to India to study sustainable agricultural models such as food forests, where crop diversity increases yields without the need for pesticides and harmful chemicals.

In her graduate work, she's looking at how to apply sustainability principles right here in Ohio. As part of her "Garden as a Classroom" project, in fall 2012 she brought elementary students to the Gardens to teach them about food webs, biodiversity, and habitats. Minkin also has visited elementary classrooms and facilitated environmental and science education programs. The project won her a first-place prize at the university's Student Research and Creative Activity Expo in April 2013.

In the next phase of the research, Minkin will investigate ways teachers incorporate sustainability in the classroom, from first-grade lessons on how potatoes grow to college-level discussions of the economic and environmental consequences of non-renewable resource dependence. Through her work with the Common Experience Project on Sustainability, she plans to assist in the development of a "sustainability" curriculum for Ohio University classes across campus.

Minkin is quick to point out that sustainability education is just as important outside of the classroom, noting that the local community can become the focal point of learning. She plans to host events at the Gardens such as panel discussions and workshops to engage people of all ages.

"The sustainability panel discussions will feature local growers and processors, who explain how we get our food and talk about agricultural systems and the interdependency of social and environmental systems," she says. Sustainability panel discussions may also focus on water, energy, technology, and social justice, with food and food systems being an overarching theme. "We're in a garden, so obviously we can't ignore agriculture."

In May 2013, Minkin was named a National Wildlife Federation Campus Ecology Fellow, which includes a $2,000 award to support environmental education and biodiversity on campus. Minkin and her adviser Art Trese, a professor of environmental and plant biology, also received an Ohio University 1804 Fund award to build a pavilion at the West State Street Research Site. Minkin hopes it will become a gathering place for students, faculty, and community members alike, serving as a beacon of sustainability that might just make Athens' secret garden a little more noticeable.

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2013 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.

Photos by Ben Siegel