“It goes back to this notion of questioning who gets to do STEM,” said Samuel Severance, an assistant professor of education and a co-principal investigator on the grant alongside Beckett. “A lot of communities have historically not been included in the STEM conversation. But when their expertise is valued, folks have a better opportunity to see themselves as practitioners of STEM and to put themselves on trajectories to continue to use STEM to contribute to their communities and to do things that are meaningful in their lives.”

For many of the families who participate in the community garden, one of the most meaningful applications of STEM is supporting the health and well-being of young people in the community. Yolonda Perez, whose daughters both previously attended Calabasas Elementary School, has organized community involvement in the garden for years. She says many families share stories about how the garden has made a positive impact in their children’s lives.

“Children are physically and mentally healthier because the garden is getting them outside and getting them interested in things like plants and flowers and butterflies and insects,” Perez said. “We can teach the kids that there’s another world outside of television and computer games.”

Perez said one of her favorite things to see in the garden is how children develop relationships with food and the land. They begin to understand elements of agricultural science, like water conservation, plant growth, and soil chemistry. And in that process, they come to appreciate healthier foods.

“There are many kids who never wanted to eat a vegetable before, but when they try something new in the garden, you see that spark in their eyes,” Perez said. “They learn to love a new thing because they have been there with it through its journey of growth.”

Perez says the interactions between UCSC students and the children at Calabasas Elementary School have also made a big impact over the years. She’d like to see more university students get involved. Undergraduates have been learning alongside community members in the garden for almost a decade, since Flora Lu, provost of College Nine and Ten and an environmental studies professor, originally launched the collaboration.

Michelle Hernandez was once one of the undergraduates pitching in around the garden, and now she co-manages the space alongside Perez as the community outreach coordinator for (H)ACER. Hernandez and Perez, who both immigrated to the United States from Mexico, say that the garden offers a crucial sense of belonging and a pride of ownership for all those who apply their STEM knowledge to help it thrive.

That sense of pride may prove to be one of the most important lessons the garden has to offer.

“Being in the garden, kids are seeing their parents teaching, and they see the richness and the value of these knowledges,” Herdandez said. “For kids to be proud and to see their parents with that pride in the work that they do means so much.”