Sept. 28, 2021

Students get their hands dirty at Soil Camp

Community partnership provides opportunities for refugee students to connect with the land
This summer, 65 children and youth ranging in age from five to 15 years participated in a land-based Soil Camp
Werklund School of Education

During the pandemic, community gardens and urban farms served as one of the few places people could safely gather and socialize, yet access to green space is not equally distributed. A unique partnership between the Werklund School of Education and community partners is challenging this inequity through land-based learning opportunities.   

This summer, 65 children and youth ranging in age from five to 15 participated in a land-based Soil Camp designed by an interdisciplinary team led by Werklund School associate professor Dr. Miwa Takeuchi, PhD. All attendees were refugees from Syria, Northern Iraq, Kurdistan, New Guinea, Pakistan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea who had resettled in Canada within the last five years.

The program explored sustainable agricultural practices, environmental and food justice, and actions for communal well-being. Focusing specifically on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) knowledge around soil and land stewardship, participants came away with a different perspective of the complexity of the ecosystem.  

“We wanted to create outdoor learning opportunities where we can reconnect with the soil and the land while deepening our understanding of them through transdisciplinary knowledge from sciences, mathematics, histories, and arts,” explains Takeuchi.

“Enthusiastic and caring teachers and teacher candidates with diverse disciplinary backgrounds from the Werklund School of Education joined as facilitators and we collectively asked ourselves, ‘What kinds of futures can we envision in the post-pandemic world — that are more socially just and environmentally just?’” 

Sustainability workshops

Takeuchi partnered on educational programming at the Land of Dreams, a public urban regenerative farm. This 30-acre plot of land in southeast Calgary provides a space for newcomers to participate in local and sustainable agriculture, while learning from Indigenous Elders and knowledge keepers. Through this access they are empowered to build local land resilience, strengthen social connections, and deepen belonging in the local community.

A large proportion of children in the program had experience with sustainable farming practices before arrival to Canada. To maximize this intergenerational knowledge, Takeuchi and her collaborators designed STEM activities that revealed the essential role soil plays in plant growth, ecology and food security. 

School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape postdoctoral associate Dr. Tatenda Mambo, PhD, shared his expertise on sustainability with a lesson on fungi that demonstrated how to grow mushrooms with recycled coffee bean waste.  

Through a hands-on worm station, participants developed empathy and care for the non-humans that maintain the soil ecosystem and for the soil that provides a habitat for these invertebrates and many other microbes.

Many of the Soil Camp facilitators were multilingual; this context created a safe environment for the participants to use languages other than English.

Werklund School undergraduate student Raneem Elhowari communicated with Arabic-speaking children in their first language about the plants and soil. Before coming to Canada, Elhowari had endured the war in Syria and used this mutual experience and language to build rapport with the participants.

“My shared backgrounds with children created a deep connection with them. The Soil Camp created a context to embrace diversity and created a safe and welcoming space for refugee children.”

Indigenous knowledge

Building connections among immigrant and Indigenous communities underpins the work at Land of Dreams and was integral to the success of the program. Dr. Kori Czuy, PhD’21, the Indigenous engagement specialist at TELUS Spark Science Centre, led sessions on land stewardship. Czuy, who is Cree, Métis and Polish, invited the group into a tipi that was built by Indigenous community members prior to the program and explained the engineering and science of the teepee. 

While inside the welcome shade of the structure, Czuy shared the story of three sisters — bean, squash and corn — to affirm the strength of diversity for sustainability and how science can bring together multiple ways of knowing.  

The children and youth also made a visit to the University of Calgary campus. During the visit, they took part in several innovative activities including a session where they explored a robot that could allow them to listen and use their imaginations to theorise about what plants may be ‘saying’. Electrodes were placed on the leaves of plants and connected to a device that could translate the electromagnetic waves into musical notes. 

“Many children were intrigued by this activity. One of the children said plants have the language called ‘plants’ and we have to listen carefully,” Takeuchi reflects.  

Nurturing community

“For me, the big hope for the soil camp was to inspire kids by introducing them to the land as something like a friend. It was my hope that kids would get curious, or fall in love with some aspect of the land,” says Rod Olson, Land of Dreams project manager. 

Hannan Sobh, a refugee child and youth counsellor with CCIS, believes the camp succeeded in its aims. “The summer program brought back some of the sense of reconnection to the land and fostered a sense of belonging. This partnership brought in strengths in teaching and pedagogy to our program.”  

Looking back, Takeuchi says the relational aspects of the program were integral to learning. “Our program connected STEM learning with embodied experiences on the land, while also fostering a sense of community. Together, we will continue to consider how we can work toward socially and environmentally just futures.” 

Soil Camp: Learning with the land