Life Lab unveils new Garden Classroom at grand opening June 1

The popular Banana Slug String Band will headline the grand opening Saturday, June 1, of the Life Lab Garden Classroom at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The public is invited to celebrate the creation of this new children's educational facility from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Garden Classroom is located on the UCSC Farm, and all grand opening events are free.

Four years in the making, the Life Lab Garden Classroom is a model outdoor classroom designed just for children, where youngsters can explore scientific concepts through garden-based exhibits and activities. School groups and teachers will visit the facility on organized tours and workshops, and the Garden Classroom will be open to community visitors for self-guided tours.

Highlights of the new facility include an outdoor kitchen funded by Chez Panisse, the "Rot Zone" featuring 10 different composting systems, a weather station, a pollination garden, a water garden, and the "Sensual Spiral" that highlights plants with different textures, smells, and colors.

Opening-day festivities will include performances by the Banana Slug String Band at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., outdoor cooking demonstrations, seed sowing, and "worm bingo." In addition, young visitors will be issued "passports" to encourage them to get the most out of the day by touring the garden and visiting "countries" such as "Seedlandia" and "Vegetopia." Fun activities will be set up at each stop, where visitors can have their "passports" stamped before moving on.

"This is a place where children can discover the science of nature," said Life Lab Science Program educational director Erika Perloff, who helped design the outdoor classroom. "The Garden Classroom is a model for the natural world, where children can take apart flowers and find seeds inside, hold worms for the first time, pat chickens, and get a much closer look at the cycles of nature."

Adjacent to UCSC's 25-acre organic Farm, the 2-acre Garden Classroom features engaging, hands-on stations that focus on areas like decomposition, adaptation, wildlife habitats, and the weather.

"In the decomposition station, kids can gather leaves, build a compost pile, check the temperature of piles that have begun to heat up, look at the creatures that break down the organic matter, sift compost and add it to a garden bed, and plant seedlings," said Perloff. "They get an up-close and personal understanding of how nutrient-rich soil helps plants grow. It's all right there for them to see and experience."

Life Lab's hands-on approach to science education has received acclaim from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the National Academy of Sciences. Affiliated with UCSC, Life Lab integrates life, Earth, and physical sciences in ways that make learning fun. Gardening is also a nonthreatening approach to science for teachers, many of whom lack formal science training. The Garden Classroom will host training workshops for veteran teachers as well as those entering the profession. "When used as living laboratories, gardens provide accessible sites for scientific investigation," said Perloff, adding that all Santa Cruz city schools have incorporated Life Lab gardens into their curriculum.

The facility hosts field trips for children in grades 2 through 5 in the spring and fall, with separate themes offered for each grade level. Teachers will receive pre- and post-visit classroom activities and are encouraged to bring their students for two visits each year to capitalize on curriculum changes that vary with the seasons, said Perloff. "Classes in the fall focus on the harvest, while spring tours will focus on planting, growth, soil, and habitat," she said.

"The Garden Classroom has been part of our vision from the beginning, and it will probably always be a work in progress," said Perloff, noting that plans are in the works to create a human sundial and develop a unit on solar energy. The garden was designed by the local landscape architecture firm Joni Janecki and Associates, which donated much of the labor.

Since its inception in 1978, Life Lab has provided instructional workshops in nearly 30 states. Hundreds of teachers around the country have turned to Life Lab for an innovative approach to science education. Support for the Garden Classroom included grants from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Gabilan Foundation, and the Stocker Foundation. The Garden Classroom is a joint project of Life Lab and the UCSC Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems.

For more information about Life Lab or the grand opening of the Garden Classroom, call (831) 459-2001.