About Learning Gardens


The Learning Gardens initiative began at PSU in the Graduate School of Education/Leadership for Sustainability Education program in 2002. Under the leadership of Dr. Dilafruz Williams and Dr. Pramod Parajuli, learning gardens have been initiated and supported with grants and staff support in partnership with many schools in Portland. In 2005, the Learning Gardens Laboratory was started. With an Environmental Protection Agency grant, learning gardens were supported at Lewis Elementary School, Buckman Elementary School, and Edwards Elementary School in Portland Public School District, 2005-2008.  Several new courses have been developed related to permaculture, garden-based education, learning gardens-curriculum and instruction, and urban education farm.

Current faculty supporting Learning Gardens at PSU are: Dr. Dilafruz Williams, Dr. Heather Burns, and Dr. Sybil Kelley.

Grants/projects that funded these initiatives are as follows, with Dr. Dilafruz Williams as Principal Investigator.

Principal Investigator. National Science Foundation. 2014-2018. Science in the learning gardens: Factors that support racial and ethnic minority students’ success in low-income middle schools. Co-Investigator, Sybil Kelley, Cary Sneider, and Ellen Skinner, awarded a Discovery Research K-12 (DRL 1418270).  $449,999.

Principal Investigator. Science in the Learning Gardens research and AERA program development. Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon. $23,275.

Principal Investigator. Spencer Foundation, 2012-2013. Garden-Based Learning in Green Ribbon Schools: Case Studies of Exemplary Schools. $29,625.

Principal Investigator. Spencer Foundation, 2010-2011. The Effects of Garden Based Learning on Academic Outcomes: A Research Synthesis:  $40,000.

Principal Investigator. Oregon Community Foundation, 2007-2008. Curriculum and Teacher Development for Learning Gardens: Academic Achievement, Multiculturalism, and Health. $28,600.

Principal Investigator. Comcast/Portland Schools Foundation grant, 2006-2009. Learning Gardens for Portland Public Schools: Health, Multiculturalism, and Academic Achievement. $75,000. Co-Investigator: Pramod Parajuli.

Co-Investigator. Environmental Protection Agency, 2005-2009. Learning Gardens K-8: Innovations in Food-based Ecological Education Design to promote Academic Achievement, Ecoliteracy, Health and Wellness. $82,000. Principal Investigator: Pramod Parajuli.

Principal Investigator, Metro Nature in the Neighborhood Program, 2006-2007. Restoring Johnson Creek Watershed Through Learning Gardens in Schools and Neighborhoods. $25,000.

Principal Investigator, City of Portland, Portland, Oregon, 2005-2006. 60th Avenue Learning Gardens Laboratory: Health, Multiculturalism, and Academic Achievement $125,000. Co-Investigator: Pramod Parajuli.

Learning Gardens Laboratory

The Learning Gardens Laboratory (LGL) is a 12-acre garden education site located in Southeast Portland that provides K-12, university students and community members hands-on and place-based education in sustainable gardening, healthy nutrition, and permaculture. Education at LGL supports improved academic achievement, leadership development, and the development of sustainable local food systems Established in 2005, LGL exists as a unique partnership between Portland State University, Portland Public Schools, Portland Parks and Recreation, and Oregon State University Extension Service.

The Learning Gardens Lab serves as model of community-based education focused on a hands-on and practical learning tool: the garden. Through garden-based education and outreach, this site serves Lane Middle School students, PSU students, SUN Program participants, Community Transition School students, OSU Extension Service’s beginning farmers and Master Gardeners, and more.

Garden-based Education with Lane Middle School

Graduate students enrolled in Portland State University’s Leadership for Sustainability Education (LSE) Program facilitate weekly garden-based science curriculum for Lane Middle School students in collaboration with our science teacher partners from Lane. Over 175 Lane Middle School students from diverse racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds receive instruction each week; they learn through direct, hands-on experience the process of growing and harvesting food, the science of cooking with whole foods, and the importance of good nutrition and eating habits. Perhaps most importantly, students learn to appreciate the interconnection and complexity of our natural world.

Garden-based Education Research

For several years, a team of researchers from Portland State University’s Psychology department led by Dr. Ellen Skinner conducted ongoing quantitative research about this partnership between the Leadership for Sustainability Education (LSE) program and Lane Middle School, focusing on how participation at the Learning Gardens Lab affects middle school students’ motivation and achievement in school. This team found that middle school students who are more engaged in the Learning Gardens also perform better in school. In fact, despite the high stability of student achievement, engagement in the gardens in the fall predicts improvements in achievement over the school year. Additionally, engagement at LGL leads to more engagement in science, and school in general. These findings are especially important for the students in this study, who are at-risk for poor school performance due to their socioeconomic, minority, and immigrant status (Skinner, 2010). This quantitative study on garden-based education is the only one of its kind in the United States.

Community Education & Outreach

Graduate Assistants from the LSE program also coordinate the Lane Family Learning Garden for Lane Middle School families who are learning to grow their own food. Coordinators help families prepare land, plant seeds and starts, maintain their plot, and harvest vegetables. In addition, PSU graduate students, OSU Master Gardeners and other volunteers harvest produce from LGL and deliver it to local food banks and local schools, where it is distributed to local families who need it. Typically over 1500 lbs of fresh produce from LGL is donated each year.


Portland State University offers an average of 8-10 senior Capstone service-learning classes per year in partnership with the Learning Gardens Lab, including: Sustainable Food Systems and Learning Gardens and Civic Affairs. Capstone students complete service-learning projects and contribute significantly to the development and maintenance of the site, while learning about sustainable gardening. Additionally, many PSU courses require Community-Based Learning and our site is one where these volunteer hours can be fulfilled.

OSU Extension

Our partners from Oregon State University’s Extension Service demonstrate sustainable, organic farming techniques at LGL through the Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship Program in partnership with Multnomah County. OSU Extension staff also train and mentor students from the Community Transition Center, a Portland Public School on site, in horticulture. OSU Extension staff also oversee the Master Gardener demonstration garden on the east end of the site and coordinate the maintenance of the trees, grass and the many perennial garden beds at LGL.


The Learning Gardens Lab is located in SE Portland on 60th Ave across from Brentwood Park between Duke and Flavel.

Additional Resources

Click here for more resources related to Garden-Based Education and Sustainability Education.

Science in the Learning Gardens


Hundreds of gardens across the country are underutilized as contexts for active academic engagement in middle grades. School gardens provide important cultural milieus while addressing environmental and food issues. Equally significant, they are sites for learning school subjects.

The Science in the Learning Gardens (SciLG) project brings underrepresented middle-school youth from Portland Public Schools (PPS) into underused school gardens at a critical time in their intellectual development, to broaden the factors that support their interest and motivation in STEM learning.

This website serves both as an overview of research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and as a web portal for teachers, curriculum coordinators and other educators with an interest in the Science in the Learning Gardens (SciLG) curriculum. For an overview of our work, please download our flyer (currently available in four languages; see below). For more information on specific aspects of this project, please visit the links further down on the page.

SciLG Flyer


Click here to learn more about the Science in the Learning Gardens research initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation. This page documents the scope of our project and includes papers, posters, and conference presentations, as well as our research instruments.


Click here to learn more about the Science in the Learning Gardens curriculum. Building your own learning gardens project? Sign up here to view and download our teaching resources.


Click here to learn more about Dr. Dilafruz Williams and Jonathan Brown’s 2011 book on garden education, Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education.

Our Research

Papers and Articles

Williams, D. R. & Anderson, J. A. (2015). Tongue-tied no more: Diversity pedagogy and sense of place in the Learning Gardens. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 20, 26-46. [PDF]

Williams. D. R. (2015). Regenerative hope: Pedagogy of action and agency in the Learning Gardens. Journal of Sustainability Education, 10: 1-19. ISSN 2151-7452. [PDF]

Kelley, S.S. & Williams, D.R. (2014). Integrating STEM and sustainability through Learning Gardens. Clearing Magazine. [PDF]

Williams, D. R. & Dixon, P. S. (2013). Impact of garden-based learning on academic outcomes in schools: Synthesis of research between 1990 and 2010. Review of Educational Research, 83(2), 211-235. doi: 10.3102/0034654313475824 [link]

Skinner, E. A., Chi, U., & the Learning-Gardens Educational Assessment Group (2012). Intrinsic motivation and engagement as “active ingredients” in garden-based education: Examining models and measures derived from self-determination theory. Journal of Environmental Education, 43(1), 16-36. [PDF]

Williams, D. R. (2012). 4 inches of living soil: Teaching biodiversity in the Learning Gardens. A photo essay. Journal of Sustainability Education. [link]

Williams, D. R. & Brown, J. D. (2011). Living soil and sustainability education: Linking pedagogy and pedology. Journal of Sustainability Education, 2. [PDF]

Williams, D.R. & Brown, J.D. (2010). Living soil and composting: Life’s lessons in the Learning Gardens. Clearing Magazine, 2010 Compendium Issue: 40-42. [PDF]

For More Information

You can also access and share our research via PDX Scholar:


The Pedagogy of Learning Gardens

Learning Gardens Book

Williams, D.R. & Brown, J. D. (2012). Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life. New York, NY: Routledge.

Offering a fresh approach to bringing life to schools and schools to life, this book goes beyond touting the benefits of learning gardens to survey them as a whole-systems design solution with potential to address myriad interrelated social, ecological, and educational issues.  The theoretical and conceptual framework presented creatively places soil at the center of the discourse on sustainability education and learning garden design and pedagogy. Seven elements and attributes of living soil and learning gardens are presented as a guide for sustainability education:  cultivating a sense of place; fostering curiosity and wonder; discovering rhythm and scale; valuing biocultural diversity;  embracing practical experience ; nurturing interconnectedness. The living soil of learning gardens forms the basis of a new metaphoric language serving to contest dominant mechanistic metaphors presently influencing educational discourse.  Student voices and examples from urban schools provide practical understanding of how bringing life to schools can indeed bring schools to life.

Book Excerpts

All excerpts are provided in PDF format.

Purchase The Book

Buy the book from Amazon, Powell’s, or direct from the publisher.

Professional Development

Current Courses

Spring 2018

Garden Education Professional Learning Community

Designed for classroom teachers to expand knowledge of, and experience in, using school gardens as outdoor classrooms. Schools gardens provide hands-on, experiential learning opportunities for students that enhance learning in core subjects including math, science, language arts, social studies, and art. This cohort of teachers will inspire, support, and hold each other accountable while they each work to develop and implement standards-based lessons and units that integrate garden education into their curriculum.

An overview of this course is available as a PDF.

Past Courses

Former course offerings have included: “Theory-to Practice in School Gardens,” “Connect-to-Science through Learning Gardens,” and “Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens.”

An overview of these courses is available as a PDF.