NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Growing and eating vegetables and fruits in gardens, identifying butterflies and simply having fun with nature is what the “Nurture thru Nature” program offers city students.

The innovative thinking of two Rutgers University professors, Radha Jagannathan and Michael J. Camasso, has provided a vehicle capable of transporting young students into the world of exploration, excitement and wonders for students enrolled in the public schools.

The program is in its seventh year. It began with 18 fourth grade students from the Paul Robeson Community School on July 6, 2010 with the creation of its first learning garden at Pine Street and Jones Avenue.

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The students in the program are from fourth grade through sophomores at New Brunswick High School. The initial section of fourth grade students who were selected stay in the program until 10th grade.

“We provide a foundation [at NtN],” said Jagannathan, who is a professor of statistics in the Urban Planning & Policy Development Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. “There needs to be basic knowledge before critical thinking. For example, identifying butterflies is the first step before learning about the different butterfly habitats.”

The program uses a randomized experimental design and selected 20 third graders randomly to participate in NtN, with the rest of the rising fourth graders from the school serving as a control group.

NtN is offered as a summer program on three days a week during July and August and continues as an after-school program in fall and spring during the regular school year.

Since 2010, the N2N program has expanded to other schools. There are 18 students from Woodrow Wilson Middle School, 18 students from McKinley School, 15 students from Redshaw School, 15 students from Roosevelt School, 16 students from Paul Robeson School, and 15 students from Lord Stirling School.

“We currently have 105 kids from seven different schools except for Lincoln Elementary School,” said Jagannathan, who explained the selection of students are done through a lottery system.

Meegan Adames, Supervisor of Science in the New Brunswick Public Schools and coordinator of the school’s NtN program, said she is really proud of how children are succeeding through the NtN program.

“It’s a partnership that we have all invested in and we see the huge added value for students living in a city to spend time outdoors in nature,” she said.

Adames said during the school year, the students in the program work on their homework focusing on math and language arts. Then, they work on hands-on activities, infused by what they are learning in the science curriculum plus extra information offered through Rutgers.

 “For example, they learn about the aquatic ecosystem and what is needed for survival,” she said.

In the spring, the students make presentations to school officials and their parents on all they have learned.

“The program has shown consistently positive results,” Adames said. “We are very proud of these kids.”

Last month, the McKinley Community School and Mayor Jim Cahill cut the ribbon on its Nurture thru Nature learning garden.

This was one of three NtN learning gardens that were made possible by funding from the Mayor’s Office through a federal Housing and Urban Development grant.

The program also receives generous donations from Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick.

“Innovative projects like these are what helps to make our school communities vibrant and successful, an important step in contributing to the overall health and wellness of our community,” Cahill said.

The City has pledged $50,000 in HUD funds so NtN could expand to three school sites — McKinley Community School, New Brunswick Middle School and Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.

The program has grown to have five learning gardens that have a pond and butterfly garden at the Paul Robeson School, Lord Sterling, Woodrow Wilson School, McKinley, and New Brunswick Middle School.

“These are beautiful impressive spaces,” said Camasso, professor of agricultural, food and resource economics at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

The program site at Pine Street and Jones Avenue consists of an outdoor learning area that features a butterfly garden, an organic vegetable garden, a pond and a fountain. Indoor learning takes place in the J.B. Smith classroom, located right behind the outdoor area.

The students learn about pond life and the different species that live in and around the pond including fish, caterpillars, snails, dragon flies and more.

“It’s very hands on,” Camasso said. “The students learn the importance of taking care of the garden area and pick up trash and weed the area. They have taken a real ownership of their gardens and see the rewards of it.”

Jagannathan said the students also get a taste of college life with guest lectures from Rutgers University professors.

Camasso said two of their older students, who are sophomores in high school, are now research interns with him at Rutgers.

“It’s exciting for them,” he said. “It is a terrific opportunity created by NtN.”

The two co-founders of NtN said they are eager to expand the program and offer it to more students in the New Brunswick Schools. But with their regular course loads as professors, that could be difficult.

Jagannathan said they have a teaching staff from Rutgers from all disciplines including nursing, English, and engineering, that teach in the NtN program. Also as the students get older, those students would be able assist in the program for the younger students.

Adames said the program relies on resources. She, along with representatives from Johnson & Johnson and the co-founders of NtN, are committed to expanding the program. They recently presented the program at a planning conference at Rutgers.

“We are currently working on more funding for additional gardens. More students should benefit from this program,” she said.

To learn more about Nurture thru Nature, visit ntn.rutgers.edu.