ITHACA, N.Y. –– A team from Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has partnered with the Ithaca Children’s Garden to distribute plant science kits to Ithaca City School District students as a way to explore interactive science curriculum and give kids a break from their screens.

“I felt eager to do something with our time rather than just sit at home,” said professor Margaret Frank, whose lab came up with the idea in the time since COVID-19 shut down their regular operations. 

700 kits, each which include a vegetable seedling (tomato, cucumber, or pepper), and two seeds along with supplies and lessons to conduct experiments and observations were delivered through the ICSD school lunch program on Friday. 

“I think especially right now, when people are so physically disconnected from each other…to be able to have something that’s alive is really special and unique. And there’s a lot of teaching and learning that can occur around plant material,” said Erin Marteal the executive director of the Children’s Garden. 

In response to COVID-19, the Ithaca Children’s Garden is closed until further notice and all ICG educational programs and events are closed through the end of the academic year. In addition to the plant science kits, to help families stay connected to nature and community, they’ve also launched the online resource ICG@HOME.

Hannah Rae Thomas, a Ph.D. student in the Frank lab, was in large part responsible for designing the curriculum, and helping kids experience watching the plants grow and germinate. For one project, she’s making time-lapse videos of the plants growing and moving, based on photos the children submit, to post on the ICG website.

“Getting that experience when you’re really young is really valuable and important,” Thomas said. “For some of the people receiving these plants, this might be some of their first experience with plant science and with projects like this.”

Frank said the hands-on experience is also important for kids who have been doing the majority of their learning online.

“The way that curriculum is written, the kids can do all of the activities without going online or having screen time. I thought that was really thoughtful…they have some learning experience where they’re not staring at a computer,” she said. 

The program has received additional support from ICSD’s Farm to Table program which provides students with a hands-on study of food, nutrition, gardening, and cooking, as well as funding from the National Science Foundation.

Frank said her lab, with help from NSF has signed on to continue the program in coming years.

“We were really lucky to get a grant just a few months ago that has a specific outreach budget that normally would have gone toward an in-person outreach project,” she said. “But NSF was really flexible and encouraging of shifting the budget to purchase materials for this project, and that’s going to last for five years.”

The ICG staff is doing virtual Q&A sessions for children to ask questions about caring for their plants and members of the Frank Lab will join the May 13 session to talk about the experiments in the gardening kits. For parents looking to join the Q&A fill out the online form here.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com