Green Team connects UGA and middle school students with passion for ecology

University of Georgia students in Alli Injaian’s Urban Ecology service-learning course spent the spring semester sharing their knowledge with aspiring ecologists at Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School in Athens.

These middle school students all belong to the Green Team, one of the after-school programs at Burney-Harris-Lyons (BHL). The Green Team was created last year, and so far, the BHL students have developed several green spaces around the school, including a raised bed pollinator garden and a spiral herb garden. They have also planted French- and Hispanic-inspired plants in the courtyards outside their language classrooms.

“We do fun stuff with planting and having fun with friends,” said Jemari, a 7th-grader on the Green Team. “Sometimes we play basketball and answer trivia about gardening and planting and fossils.”

Last spring, Injaian, a member of the 2022-23 Service-Learning Fellows cohort, formed a relationship with Sam George, the visual arts teacher at BHL who organizes the Green Team program. The two decided to combine their classes, and each week over the semester, Injaian and her students visited BHL to study trees with the Green Team through multiple disciplines, from science and nutrition to social studies and art.

“We are always excited to see what’s happening the next week with their expertise, resources and influx of exciting ideas,” George said. “[My students] are full of questions, so having a group of ecology majors around is a wonderful resource.”

When Injaian’s students were not learning alongside the Green Team, they would take on the role of the educators and pass along what they learned from Injaian through weekly, group-taught lessons. The ecology students developed their science skills, built their confidence and leadership and learned how to manage a team of middle-schoolers.

“For many of my students, this was not just their first time teaching, but also their first time being the person in charge,” Injaian said, “They developed leadership skills alongside their scientific knowledge. I’m hopeful that my students will take these leadership skills with them into the workforce, onto graduate school or into their next semester here at UGA.”

An example of one of these weekly lessons was one taught by Sophia Rubin, a third-year ecology major from Atlanta; Coles Ehlers, a fourth-year ecology and economics double major from Athens; and MaKenzie Leatherwood, a fifth-year ecology major from Cochran, Georgia. The lesson covered the cultural significance of trees throughout the world and focused on fourtrees that provide familiar foods: cocoa, coconut, cinnamon and pomegranate. The lesson also included research from folk tales and mythological stories about these four trees, and Injaian’sstudents brought in food samples and broke the class into groups to act out the trees’ stories as skits.

“[This course] was one of the best parts of my senior year,” Leatherwood said. “I learned so much from Dr. Injaian and Mrs. George, and as I move into the next phase of my life, I plan to continue the lessons that they instilled in me. I learned that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, but it’s how you use them that defines you. You can choose to let your weaknesses get the best of you or you can rise above them and show everyone how strong you truly are.”

Leatherwood said she saw her classmates take steps out of their comfort zones and take an interest in something they might not have had a chance to experience otherwise. Her classmates learned how to confidently give direction and speak loudly and clearly, and many bonded with the students at BHL to form a mentor-mentee relationship. By the end of the semester, Injaian said her students were truly leading each class at BHL.

“One of my teaching mentors once told me: ‘As an instructor, you know you’ve done your job in training your students when they no longer need you to be in the room—they can do the task completely on their own,’” Injaian said. “By the end of the semester, that was my experience. I sat in the back of the room, ate my snack alongside the BHL and UGA students, and felt proud of the lessons and activities my students were running up front, completely on their own.”

Throughout the semester, Injaian wanted to introduce the Green Team to some exciting aspects of ecology, so she invited a drone pilot to visit, speak to the students about drone technology and take photos and videos to map out the school’s green space from above. Injaian also worked with a dendrology expert at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia at the University of Georgia to identify the tree species on BHL’s campus and create customized identity labels for the Green Team to install around school grounds. The semester wrapped up with the Green Team planting their own tree saplings around the school alongside Injaian’s students.

While this semester’s topic focused on trees, the partnership with BHL will be continuing in Spring 2024, and the semester will cover the topic of Carbon and Ecological Footprints. George said the partnership has introduced her students to new, fun-filled learning experiences, and she looks forward to seeing how Injaian’s students continue to learn and grow through the partnership.

“As a nearly lifelong Athenian and UGA graduate, I love to see the University and the local community join in mutually beneficial efforts,” George said. “There's a full-circle kind of beauty to such partnerships.”