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June 02, 2009

Researcher helps second graders learn about strawberries

Gina Fernandez with students
Dr. Gina Fernandez, right, and students examine parasitized thrips on leaves from the strawberry patch at Swift Creek Elementary School. (Becky Kirkland photos)

While North Carolina strawberry growers looked forward to a bumper crop of berries in May, second graders at Swift Creek Elementary School in Raleigh also were watching their small crop come in. Though the school’s berries arrived a few weeks later than those of commercial growers, the students and their teachers have gained a wealth of knowledge from their year-long study of strawberries and how they grow.

The project started last fall as a collaboration between Dr. Gina Fernandez, small fruits specialist and associate professor of horticultural science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Swift Creek second grade teacher Megan Sedaghat. Fernandez’s daughter, Anya Yencho, was a student in Sedaghat’s class this year. When Sedaghat learned of Fernandez’s expertise with strawberries, she asked if Fernandez would help students grow and study strawberries.

The North Carolina Strawberry Association also got involved, providing Strawberry Time coloring books for the students and some funds to help develop a school curriculum on strawberries that other schools could implement.

As a crop, strawberries fit nicely into a traditional calendar school year, Fernandez said. The strawberry plants are planted in the fall, cared for throughout the winter and harvested in May, just before the school year ends. School gardens planted in the spring won’t yield their harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers until mid-summer after students have left school.

In the fall, Fernandez helped the second-grade classes prepare a bed for strawberries, covered in plastic like most commercial strawberry beds in North Carolina. Each of five classes planted six strawberry plants to raise during the school year. Through the winter, students monitored night-time temperatures and covered their plants when a freeze was expected. They also had to cover their plants with netting when birds and squirrels threatened their berries.

“This has been so cool,” Sedaghat said of the project. “Why in the world anyone studying plants in school wouldn’t grow strawberries, I don’t know.”

Sedaghat said the students had enjoyed the lessons that Fernandez brought to the classroom. “She’s an expert, a role model. We couldn’t have done it without her,” Sedaghat said.

Second-grade students don’t study plants as part of the state’s curriculum, but they do study measurement, so Fernandez helped the class set up a system for measuring plant growth each month throughout the growing season. The classes planted “control” plants – one for each month of the growing year. Fernandez visited the school each month to measure and weigh different plant parts. Students in Sedaghat’s class kept “scientific journals” to record the progress of their strawberry crop during the year.

Students shared what they had learned about strawberries – that they grow from flowers, that the new plants are called “tips” and that you have to cut off the plants’ runners.

Measuring strawberry growth
Teacher Megan Sedaghat and a student examine strawberry leaves from fall and from May to see how much the plants grew.

In early May, they measured their final plant of the growing season. First, Fernandez removed the plant from its pot, and then students rinsed dirt off the plant’s roots so they could measure their length. Sedaghat, a self-proclaimed pack rat, still had the dried roots sample from the first plant the students measured in the fall. The students were able to compare how the plants’ roots had grown since September. Cries of “wwwwooooooo” arose as students compared the two root samples.

The students also removed, counted and weighed the plant’s leaves, then weighed the remaining crown of the plant. Fernandez told the students that the scientific measurements they took were the same research practices used by her graduate students at N.C. State. With a year’s worth of plant measurements recorded in their journals, students were able to create graphs showing the strawberry plants’ growth over time.

In addition to Fernandez’s visits, the students heard from Apex strawberry grower Karma Lee of Buckwheat Farm, who explained how she raises strawberries on her farm. When she told them she has 56,000 strawberry plants at her pick-your-own operation, they were stunned.

The day the students measured their last strawberry plant was significant in another way: the school cafeteria served strawberries at lunch that day. North Carolina strawberries will be served in 47 school districts across the state this season through the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Farm to School program. Students received another unexpected treat for their efforts – a quart of berries for each second grader from Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury.

The second grade strawberry patch didn’t get quite enough sun to produce lots of berries, but Sedaghat already has plans to move the whole operation to a sunnier site next season. The project was such a success, that Liz Driscoll, youth horticulture Extension associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is developing a strawberry curriculum with help from the N.C. Strawberry Association that could be used in schools throughout the state. Cooperative Extension agents could get involved in the project in their own communities.

"Kids love strawberries. Helping kids become lifetime strawberries eaters is good for their health and for our farmers,” said Debby Wechsler of the N.C. Strawberry Association. “This project is great because it also encourages budding scientists and builds understanding of how plants grow.”

-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at June 2, 2009 09:13 AM