By Nicole Bruce, SOYL Lead Facilitator
To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment.
Interview with Dr. Susan Gerofsky
Susan Gerofsky is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education and Environmental Education in the Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Her interdisciplinary research is in embodied, multisensory, multimodal mathematics education through the arts, movement, gesture and voice. She works in curriculum studies, environmental garden-based education, the language and genres of mathematics education, and media theory. Dr. Gerofsky is academic advisor and co-founder of the UBC Orchard Garden, a student-led campus learning garden. She is active as a mathematics educator, poet, playwright, musician and filmmaker, and works with dance and fibre arts. You’ll often find her cycling around town with a baritone horn or an accordion.
We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?
I have to say bok choy because I just picked some and they were so fresh. I feel like I grew half an inch being here with the Fresh Roots team in this beautiful place and having this new food springing forth again. There’s so much hope and life there.
Can you describe your work as an educator?
I’m an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education and Environmental Education at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where I’ve been for 16 years now. I teach new teachers in the Bachelor of Education program, specifically secondary math, physics and computer science, as well as graduate students, many of whom have teaching experience and are doing research in education.
I’m a co-founder with some graduate students, including Julia Ostertag, of the UBC Orchard Garden. That’s how I came to be an environmental educator. The Orchard Garden, founded around 2010, is a cross-faculty teaching and learning garden on UBC’s central campus, including the Faculties of Education and Land and Food Systems, with participation from Landscape Architecture and Forestry. From the Education side of things, we wanted to make a place where new teachers could experiment with teaching across the curriculum, with the garden as a co-teacher. How can you help students learn in and with the garden in a role as a teacher of history, poetry, math, art, music or any subject? How can you learn outside in a way that helps you and your students be aware of our more-than-human kin: the plants, birds, insects and other critters, rocks, rain and sky? How can we learn together with an understanding that we are part of whole ecosystems and the world? From a Land and Food Systems point of view, many students are longing for hands-on experience to experiment with growing and harvesting food organically and caring for the soil. Landscape Architecture students need opportunities to design with the natural world, and the Forestry students we work with are interested in urban food forests, the mycorrhizal communication systems within forests and other very interesting topics.
What was your path to becoming an educator?
As a child growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, I was very connected with the outdoors. My Dad took us for walks and adventures in the woods, bike rides, canoe trips, and all kinds of outdoor experiences. We always had garden beds around the house, and I was very keen to grow vegetables. From the age of about seven or eight, I had my own little garden patch. I would browse through the seed catalogues in the winter, and carefully choose what I was going to plant. I loved growing things that you could eat, and things that were beautiful and fascinating, like sunflowers and morning glories that would respond to the sun. It was just wonderful to have that little garden, and woods, rivers and lakes nearby.
Before my current job, I worked as a picture and sound editor in the film industry, and then taught adult education and secondary schools. In my first year of high school teaching at Vancouver Technical Secondary School (which now has another Fresh Roots schoolyard farm), I realized there was nowhere for the kids to be outside, even though the school has a huge campus. There were no rocks, logs, picnic tables or anything for kids to sit on outdoors. When I taught summer school in the stifling July heat, I didn’t want the kids to be inside for a four-hour class every day, but the only place we could use as an outdoor classroom was the very noisy front lawn of the school, facing a busy street. So I started a campaign for a school garden. We had parents, teachers, students, administrators and others all around the neighbourhood coming to weekly meetings to plan this garden. We had science students measuring where the shadow fell on our proposed courtyard garden and mapping where the rain went. We had drafting students creating 3D tours of our potential garden. Many people in the school and neighbourhood were involved.
Then they laid off all the new teachers in the district and shuffled them around. I got moved to a different school, which did have a nice school garden. The school garden project at Van Tech was halted when a few of us left the school. We were ready to make this garden, we had raised money for it, we had plans that had been approved by the school board, we had a landscape architect who had helped us draw up the plans — everything was ready to go, but then it got stalled, for 12 years! I live right near the school, and would walk by there every day, glance at this sterile concrete courtyard, and picture it green and leafy. Then, miraculously, some teachers still at the school kept the idea of the garden alive, and new teachers took up the campaign for a Van Tech school garden. They took our plans, refurbished them, and it happened!
What’s more, by the time I was at UBC, Mark Schutzbank, who was a graduate student in the Orchard Garden, joined together with Ilana Labow and got the Fresh Roots farm going at Van Tech. Now I get a CSA box from that schoolyard farm. It’s a full circle. There are other Fresh Roots connections: Galen Taylor-Jones was a student working at the UBC Orchard Garden; Tathali Urueta did her doctoral dissertation about the Orchard Garden and the UBC Farm. These gardens have become the basis for a really strong community all over Greater Vancouver and beyond. There has been a wonderful evolution of the whole idea of growing and eating healthy food at school, and learning curriculum outdoors with the living world in a school garden.
What motivates you to keep doing what you do?
For me, the most uplifting experience is being part of an intergenerational community, discovering things about our world and finding joy in being together outdoors, learning together, and making and eating food together. There are all the unexpected things that happen when you have workshops and classes in the garden. All of a sudden there are eagles overhead, hummingbirds diving, a field mouse, an amazing rainbow over the garden [laughs], or it suddenly starts to rain. All the unexpected happenings become part of the learning and part of the curriculum. I remember one student teacher who was really keen to learn gardening, but who described herself growing up as “a Nintendo kid”, letting herself into the apartment with a latchkey on a string around her neck and playing Nintendo until her mom got home. She hadn’t had many opportunities to be outdoors, and couldn’t tell a carrot from lettuce growing in the garden at first, but she learned very quickly. When I see people go through that transformation, from wherever they’re starting from to a much greater degree of familiarity and knowledge, and knowing that they’re going to teach this to their students over the next 25 or 30 years as they teach, it seems to me there is plenty of hope for the world. Something very concrete we do right now may have a beneficial influence years into the future.
How does your work relate to food systems or the environment?
I see more and more that people live their lives inside looking at screens, out of touch with the world of living things that we are part of and that we depend on, and that’s all around us. I think if people get too far out of touch with what sustains us, we may start to jeopardize our existence on Earth and the endanger life on the planet. It’s really important that kids grow up with an embodied, sensory, knowledgeable, kinship way of relating to all life on Earth. Knowing where our food comes from, knowing what keeps us healthy and alive, and what keeps all the other beings on earth healthy and alive is so important, and kids only understand that through lots of experiential, outdoor learning.
School gardens are particularly great because you don’t have to rent a bus or buy special gear to get involved, as you might need to do for other kinds of outdoor adventures like camping, mountain climbing and kayaking. Those activities are wonderful and memorable, but they are often a once-a-year kind of experience for kids. The school garden can be there all the way through the year, even in the summertime. It’s right outside the doors of the school. It can bring observation and empathy of the world of living things to kids every day, though all the seasons of the year.
I have the opportunity to work with teachers who, over the course of their careers, reach thousands of students and their families. Everyone in our society cares and is affected by what happens in the schools. I’m really encouraged by the whole worldwide school gardening movement as a way to bring kids into relationship with the world. My own philosophy leans towards permaculture and organic gardening, working without pesticides, herbicides or heavy machinery. We can go with the flow of nature as much as we’re able to and not destroy soil, insects and pollinators. I’m keen to get rid of the concept of ‘weeds’, and to see all plants as potential allies, that generously offer us food, medicine, fibres and more.
What advice would you give to your younger self, or to youth today?
We are living in a time of extremes like the climate crisis and the COVID pandemic. But if you have an awareness of history, most people’s lifetimes do have extreme times in them. I would advise young people to have hope, and to work in small and large ways to make this the world you want to live in. My shorthand motto for this is “Ride bikes, grow food, make music” — though of course, it might be a different configuration for each person (“Swim, storm watch, sketch”? “Sing, cook, go birdwatching”?) Connect with your friends and community and plan for a future of wellbeing, for our society, for individuals and for all our non-human kin. Through your senses, being aware of where you are and beginning to learn, you can have the most amazing moments of wonder and awe and joy, no matter what else is happening. The natural world keeps going and it’s incredibly beautiful and inspiring. So just let yourself be inspired.
Sky, Sun, Seasons & Shadows: On May 11th 3:30-4:30pm PST, join Fresh Roots and Susan Gerofsky online to learn how we can use schoolyard farms to promote science education. Register at https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/sky-sun-seasons-shadows-tickets-152781001087