George Washington Carver is frequently honored in U.S. schools during Black History Month. Modern farmers owe the legendary Tuskegee Institute agricultural scientist a huge debt – his research helped black farmers in the South become more self-sufficient and less reliant on cotton, which depleted the fields of minerals.
Katherine Keller, who’s developing a nature-based curriculum for the childcare classrooms at St. Ann Center, knew she wanted to introduce the work of this important gardener, scientist, and inventor to the children.
So many lesson plans about Carver focus on his work with peanuts, maybe because it helped so many people understand peanuts could be so much more than just livestock feed. Without Carver’s work, PB&J sandwiches probably would never have became a childhood staple. Carver didn’t invent peanut butter – the Mayans did, about 1,000 years ago – but he popularized peanuts to the extent that he became known as “The Peanut Man” until his death in 1948.
But with peanut allergy an increasing problem for many children, Keller wanted to focus instead on one of the other two crops Carver known for. His agricultural research promoted peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes as means to revitalize mineral-depleted soil.
Sweet potatoes, with their vibrant orange or purple interiors, struck Keller as the crop of choice –especially since they were more likely to be familiar to preschoolers. Sweet potatoes are a classic Thanksgiving dish, and many families prefer sweet potato pie to pumpkin pie.
This humble root vegetable also packs a powerful nutritional punch, providing many health benefits. (Some say they’re more nutritious even than broccoli or spinach!) That ties right into the lessons Keller is sharing year-round about healthy eating, lessons supported during the growing season by the raised garden beds at St. Ann Center’s Bucyrus Campus that the children help care for. Sweet potatoes weren’t among the many crops the gardens produced last year, primarily because they tend to grow in warmer clients.
She created a lesson plan about Carver, sharing how he was born into slavery and freed after the Civil War, how he eventually went to college to study plants (becoming the first African-American to receive a Bachelor of Science degree, in 1894), and how he then taught and researched at Tuskegee. The children also saw how sweet potatoes grow underground, with bright flowers blooming above the ground, saw the sweet potatoes Keller brought in, and colored pictures of the veggie.
Interested in growing your own sweet potato vine at home? Keller included in her lesson plan directions for this activity that should appeal to school-aged children–or anyone interested in getting a hands-on connection to George Washington Carver’s legacy.