Clemson professor Matt Powers, center, and math teachers from Dacusville Middle School test out the school's new math garden that Powers' Clemson students designed and built.

By Heidi Coryell Williams
College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities

It was a bright spring day when Clemson’s director of landscape architecture, Matthew Powers, unveiled his latest “learning landscape” to an audience of students, teachers and administrators in a courtyard of Dacusville Middle School in upstate South Carolina.

Groups of students use the math garden.Benches, wooden-barrel planters and young trees encircled the audience. Speeches were given. Formalities ensued. And when those had all been dispensed with (and about the time most of the middle schoolers’ eyes had started to glaze over) Powers walked to the center of the gardenscape and lifted a simple, gray Rubbermaid box, holding it almost parallel with his head, about six feet off the ground. Then he turned it upside down, dumping its contents — chains, hooks, carabiners, surveyor flags, measuring tape, hundreds of feet of rope and more — onto the ground in one noisy heap.

Students dove in. The months since that ceremony have proven to be a formula for success. Because the garden itself plus the dozens of the “loose parts” contained in that plastic box have equaled endless exploration of geometric shapes for these rural middle schoolers.

“The garden is just one more connection they can make; this time because it was something they could physically touch,” said seventh grade math teacher Audrey Keith, who has taken her advanced class out to discover the Pythagorean theorem. “It’s important they be able to explore math concepts at a deeper level. For a lot of students — and sometimes even their parents — math is scary. Even though they use the skills and concepts every day, they don’t realize it. If they hit a roadblock, I want to show them another way to learn.”

Just as Powers turned over his bin of novelties, his work has also flipped on its head the idea of teaching complex math concepts to young learners. The learning landscape project is part of an ongoing Creative Inquiry class — Clemson’s undergraduate research program.

Powers and Dascusville Middle Principal Andrew Hooker are already working on ways to test the impact of the garden on students’ learning using pre and post testing. As results trickle in, changes to the educational system could be close behind. Powers believes it could change the way school campuses look in the future, but more importantly, alter how students and teachers view the learning and teaching of math.

“My hope is that one day, every middle school in the state will have a math garden,” explains Powers, who is an associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture. “Every teacher I’ve met is encouraged by it. And when people find out about it, they want to know how they can do it.”

On its face, this first South Carolina based-learning landscape might look very simple. A blank courtyard was leveled and cleared, and erected at its center was a generously sized square, divided into four quadrants. The positive quadrants of the square are delineated by a wood material; the negative ones by pea gravel. And at the center of the square is a large wooden pole, equipped with hooks affixed at varying heights. These hooks are what allow students to attach various lengths of rope and chain to the pole, so that they can create angles between it and the ground.

Middle school students dove into the project by helping Clemson students plant the trees and shrubbery in and around the finished garden.There are similar hooks affixed throughout the math garden. Trees, fences — nothing is safe from exploration. Multicolored surveyor flags are at hand to help students measure distance within the garden. Chains are multicolored, as well, and are designed to help quantify. To hear and watch Powers explain his work — voice booming and arms waving — is to get a glimpse into his enthusiasm for the project, particularly in the public school setting. His work is allowing middle school students to take classroom-based concepts like area, fractions and equations and explore them in an interactive, hands-on approach.

“All students learn differently at different times and in different situations,” Hooker said. “This learning landscape is another wonderful tool that can be used to engage students in the learning process.”

In the same vein, Powers’ landscape architecture students and Creative Inquiry participants are enjoying their own brand of experiential learning by being part of this ongoing project. In addition to helping form the questions and create the design of Dacusville Middle’s math garden, Clemson students also had to troubleshoot and execute its construction, a process that entailed about five working days to pull together the 500-square-foot space.

“At first, this project was daunting, but it was so rewarding,” said graduate student Ginny Bailey, who worked alongside Powers and the Creative Inquiry class. “I got really excited about the garden, and the students seemed to really enjoy it; they just kept saying ‘thank you, thank you’ when we built it.”

She still stops by the school from time to time to check in on the garden.

Now that the garden is complete, Clemson students will take part in studies tracking the progress, as well as the achievement of the students who use it. In the meantime, another Creative Inquiry class has begun work on the next learning landscape for Dacusville Middle — a history garden.

Using the idea of concept mapping, which is already used in schools, the history garden will help visually show how events, ideas and history are all connected like a spider web. The garden will have the same visual look and feel as the math garden, and is being built directly beside it.

What comes next for Powers and his students?

“Our job is to convince lawmakers and superintendents that this is a worthwhile investment, and every school in America should have it,” Powers concludes. “It’s exciting. It could change education.”

Clemson Creative Services writer Crystal Boyles contributed to this article.