We recently sat down with Jen Aguilar, our Youth Program Manager & Eastside Explorer lead, to talk about how the program came to be and where she envisions the success will take it for years to come.
How was the Eastside Explorers program developed?
Eastside Explorers started with a conversation about which populations our organization was least connected with in the community. Looking at the scope of our programming, we saw middle school aged students needed ways to connect. The Youth Garden does a great job engaging with youth under 12 and their parents, and many high school students are old enough to join the farm crew in the fields or consider our internship programs.
The first step was to propose a program to serve as an avenue to connect middle school students with the farm, our staff and our community. When the Applied Materials Foundation approached us, we responded with a major project proposal and were beyond excited when they agreed to support us. From the end of spring and through the summer we have been collaborating with staff, our strategic consultant and other community partners who have knowledge and experience with outdoor education, to help us develop a sustainable and successful program for our organization.
How did you choose which schools to partner with?
For this first year, with the guidance of our strategic consultant, we decided we would be able to best serve our community by partnering with middle schools in our neighborhood. We had a number of schools in mind, particularly those from East San José that had visited us in previous years. Proximity played a major factor in selecting partner schools, because we hope for students to feel connected to - not only our organization - but also their neighborhood community.
I immediately thought of Ocala STEAM Academy because they reached out the year prior and had wanted to bring their classes for tours. Their 8th grade classes have an environmental theme incorporated with their STEAM curriculum. Last year, they were starting their own school garden, as well. I had the privilege of visiting their campus and seeing the work that they had done after visiting the farm. I really enjoyed seeing how invested the students and teachers were in their garden. Naturally, this placed them on my radar as a possible partner school. We are planning to connect with more schools as we progress through the school year.
How does Eastside Explorers support classroom curriculum?
Many schools are implementing STEM and STEAM curriculum. STEM emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math. STEAM is similar, but includes an additional art component. Next Generation Science standards and Common Core standards are also part of the equation. When students visit the farm through Eastside Explorers, they participate in hands on activities that support their middle school learning standards. Teaching outdoors ties in very naturally with environmental and life science, but there are plenty of opportunities to connect a day at Veggielution with Common Core goals, as well. Students are inspired to write papers or design presentations for their classes when they can create content that reflects upon a personal experience.
Over the summer, with the support of fellow outdoor educators, I learned how to connect classroom standards with outdoor educational activities. Bringing students to the farm is a great way to engage with them. A new environment, an urban farm, can place a special meaning on lessons and help students remember new concepts by attaching them to a unique experience. While on the farm, there are opportunities to interact with the environment, collaborate with classmates, be curious, ask questions and consider problems and solutions.
What is the importance of STEM and STEAM in East San José?
The point of STEM and STEAM curriculum is to equip students with necessary skills and abilities to be successful in their future careers. The outdoor classroom is a fantastic teaching tool for this curriculum and schools in many areas are implementing garden education to support their classroom standards. Veggielution is making that relevant in East San José, whether or not our partner schools have the resources to build and maintain a garden on their own campus. These students deserve to have the same experiential learning opportunities as their peers in the greater Silicon Valley, to step outside, engage with a living classroom and ultimately, feel inspired to learn.
What are some of your goals for year 1?
This is a pilot year for Eastside Explorers. Not only are we designing our activity tracks, developing curriculum that fits with our farm and connects to the goals of Veggielution, but we are also placing priority on our East San José students. This is their neighborhood and our program design will depend heavily upon their needs.
Next school year, our goal is to open up field trip opportunities to the greater San José area. The purpose of this pilot year is to establish a sustainable program that matches our organization’s capacity. In year two, we will be better equipped to branch out and offer our activities to classes beyond our partner schools, as well as expand our curriculum and activities into multiple seasonal tracks.
How does Eastside Explorers fit into Veggielution’s Mission and Goals?
Over the past year, Veggielution staff has spent a significant amount of time planning and implementing programs that will build a stronger relationship with East San José. As an urban farm, we have an incredible location in this city. There is so much the Mayfair neighborhood has to offer and its time to connect and celebrate this community. Eastside Explorers directly supports our Youth Education mission and goals because, not only are we developing partnerships, we are bringing youth outdoors to an agricultural space, a place they can return to with their families. Whether that means coming to the Youth Garden with a younger sibling on a Saturday, taking a Veggielution Cocina class with their parent, or visiting the farm stand for organic produce, there are countless ways our Eastside Explorers students can fit in at the farm and find a sense of place in this community.
How was the first class?
Last Wednesday, we hosted one of the first classes from Ocala STEAM Academy. I have to say that it was a fantastic experience. Immediately, when the students arrived I could feel their energy and excitement to be out of the classroom – somewhere new. Through each of the activities, they stayed well engaged and at the end of the day, all had smiles on their faces with things to share about what they enjoyed. It definitely confirmed that all the hard work we have put into this program was well worth it.