ASU grad puts honors thesis on benefits of community gardening into action

Sustainability, student engagement take root in school community garden


Portrait of ASU grad Casey Fetkenhour.

2022 ASU grad Casey Fetkenhour

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Arizona State University graduate Casey Fetkenhour is putting her honors thesis into action at a school in southern Arizona.

Fetkenhour, who received a bachelor’s degree in clinical exercise science with honors from Barrett, The Honors College in 2022, is a physical education teacher at BASIS Oro Valley, a public charter school north of Tucson.

To fulfill her honors requirements, Fetkenhour completed a thesis titled "Growing Community at Basis Oro Valley Through Gardening: A Portfolio," aimed at providing educators with information about the importance of community gardens in student engagement and learning, tips for how to start a community garden, lesson plans to integrate the garden into coursework and gardening resources.

Last August, Fetkenhour worked with her father, BASIS Oro Valley biology teacher Eric Fetkenhour, to establish a community garden at the school with support from the student-led Roots and Shoots Club.

The garden is made up of several large, rectangular, above-ground containers filled with various plants, including herbs, tomatoes and flowers. The raised beds have a self-watering system that uses terra-cotta pots.

“I loved doing my thesis project and knew from the beginning that I wanted to take a more creative route and do something I could put into action. It was a really fulfilling process because I knew it would be something that could help in the community,” Casey said.

She said the project is bringing students together to gain hands-on experience in gardening and sustainability while building a beautiful and peaceful space where members of the school community can go to relax and recharge.

“This entire journey has been a learning process. We’re starting small with our prototype garden to see if we can increase the scale in the future. We’re also learning what we can and can’t do with the resources we have,” said Eric Fetkenhour, Roots and Shoots Club advisor.

“What I’m hoping they get out of it is they start sharing the information they learn in the classroom and in the garden with their parents. Hopefully this allows them to help their parents make better decisions about where they purchase their food and what they’re purchasing,” he said in reference to students.

The project has been well-received by students, who were looking for community-building opportunities.

“I was thinking of project ideas we could pursue that would benefit the community, and I saw Ms. Fetkenhour’s thesis on starting a community garden at BASIS and it clicked for me,” said Hannah Zhang, a 12th grader and president of the Roots and Shoots Club.

“Having the community garden allows students to learn about plant and soil science, and gives them something tangible to hold onto while they’re learning about these ideas in the classroom. It also has community benefits like promoting teamwork, dedication to a project and leadership," she said.

Banesa Valencia, an 11th grader and Roots and Shoots Club member, said she is picking up gardening skills.

“For me, I’ve always liked plants but I haven’t been good at growing them, so I saw the community garden as an opportunity to learn. I also liked the idea of having a community garden at our school because it can be a little dull sometimes and it adds color and life,” she said.

For fellow 11th grader and Roots and Shoots Club member Aubrianna Banales, the garden presents a way for students to socialize and collaborate.

“I saw the community garden as a chance to grow plants I wouldn’t normally grow and to spend time with friends after school working on something we were all passionate about,” she said.

The students agree that they’d like to expand the garden and involve more of their classmates.

“I think this is a project that can be easily expanded upon. We’ve planted the seed for BASIS to become a greener community” said Claire Alexander, a 12th grader and Roots and Shoots Club member.

“Hopefully in the future, we can have a variety of plants in the garden to get a more comprehensive understanding of what we can and cannot grow. I’d also like to get more students to join the club and get them involved in 6th and 7th grade so we have dedicated members by the time they get to their junior and senior year,” Zhang said.