The sun could barely peek through the thick cloud cover on a chilly Thursday morning in early March. Still, a group of thirteen teachersa capacity crowd, actuallyhad gathered on Durham’s Hub Farm for a teacher’s workshop, hoping to learn new techniques and ideas to take back to their classrooms.

When I arrived, though, there were no ongoing, hypothetical conversations about curriculum or classroom structures. Rather, the teachers shoveled dirt.

Reid Rosemond, one of Hub’s farmers, explained that the group of recruits was covering a new section of sewage system that leads to a retention pond. The ground was muddy from the previous night’s rain, so the task proved atypically tough. Another group of teachers, meanwhile, shifted rocks in a nearby garden plot.

Stephen Mullaney, the self-described “wayward educator” leading the event, said the goal for the workshop, the first of its kind, was to teach with intent. This seminar, he explained, was a way for teachers to get outdoors and not just learn about education, but to experience it, too, just like their kids. Watching them shovel and sweat on a school day, I sensed it might be working.

Located next to Durham’s Eno Valley Elementary School, the thirty-acre Hub is the brainchild of a group of educators who hoped to incorporate outdoor, agricultural education with early schooling. In four years, more than three thousand students, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, have cycled through its programming, getting out of the classroom and into a more practical learning environment. They farm and hike, bike and cook, eat and learn. And now, Huba partnership between schools, communities, and corporationsis working to expand its reach, using nature to nurture better students, better teachers, and a better food system to serve them.

Katherine Gill is the driving force behind that mission. For Gill, Hub represents both a personal investment and the fulfillment of a longtime vision. From the age of thirteen, when Gill took walks with her parents in the woods near her home, she dreamed of creating a farm for students where they could learn about the value of working with land.

“I spent so much time outdoors, and I saw a disconnect between what I was learning in nature and what they taught in school,” says Gill. “I had this yearning.”

As the years passed, Gill’s love of the outdoors and the ecosystems she observed only grew. She went to school to study German but emerged with a degree in ecology, eventually earning her master’s in landscape architecture from N.C. State. She was interested in urban designnamely, how to make use of spaces that often sat fallow.

“Schools are big landowners, but a lot of it is underutilized,” she says. “There’s so much potential, and I wanted to look at bigger systemic questions, like how to understand ecological and social connections in relation to the land.”

So she and others began planning for Hub in late 2011. They launched it a little less than a year later. Now, after only four years, the farm is a collaborative nexus that works with the teachers, students, and community members of Durham Public Schools to, as Hub’s literature puts it, “engage in experiential learning about agriculture, food systems, and natural science.” Or, as Gill explains, Hub is a marriage between her love of farming, her goals to repurpose overlooked natural spaces, and her passion for engaging kids in active learning environments, not the passive ones of wooden desks and sharpened pencils.

From habitat gardens and chicken coops to a barn and outdoor classrooms and cooking stations, Hub is putting the pieces in place to make that mission matter.

Early on this Thursday, it’s the teachers who got their hands dirty. Mullaney instructed them to perform seemingly mundane, physically strenuous tasks in order to demonstrate the importance of prioritizing tasks and finishing them collectively.

“Usually, these workshops are held in an indoor facility. Working in an environment like this forces teachers out of their comfort zone, making it easier to learn about empathy,” noted Mullaney. As he spoke, one group collected stones from the surrounding woods, moved them into a garden, and used them to weigh down a plastic tarp that covered newly planted seeds. The goal was to trap the sun’s warmth.

“We use the farm to learn about what’s necessary and what needs to get done,” he continued. “That can translate to how they teach in the classroom.”

At the end of the four-hour workshop, Ursela Jones, a STEM teacher at Neal Magnet Middle School, agreed.

“This isn’t the usual setting for development,” she said, “so it creates better chances of implementing techniques in the classroom.”

Feeling fatigued from the morning’s tasks, Reed Fagan, another Neal teacher, proclaimed with a laugh, “My back hurts. I’m tired, and it’s cold.”

Mullaney chimed in, saying it’s these adverse experiences that allow teachers to better understand students when they’re struggling with a particular task. While the morning may have been a challenge, the lessons seemed to sit well; when the class was over, more than half of the attendees enlisted for the following week.

When Gill talks about the Hub’s innovative approach, she exudes humility. She’s quick, for instance, to assign credit to others. She notes that collaborations with corporations like Burt’s Bees and Blue Cross Blue Shield help make Hub possible at all, as do the volunteers. Their contributions are nearly equivalent to the farm’s entire operating budget, she says.

No, this enterprise isn’t about her.

“I wanted to develop a place where students have hands-on learning and opportunities for environmental initiatives,” she says. “My interests lie in learning about how the outdoors engages people.”

But the space is more than just a way for students to learn about natureit’s an environment that fosters a love of learning and curiosity for the world at large. A new program called EcoBlitz, for instance, will soon incorporate fifth-grade students from twenty different schools into the Hub. Stations around the farm host activities that correspond with what the students are learning in their own classrooms.

EcoBlitz’s organizer, Dacia Jones, works as the science director for Durham Public Schools. She hopes the new program, which launched in late March, will bring out two thousand more students to Hub this spring alone.

“We want to make sure all students have access to the farm,” says Jones. “It’s an untapped gem. This program will help students reach their full potential as they go into middle school.”

EcoBlitz, as well as other programs Hub facilitates, is an example of STEM at its most fundamental.

“It is a tangible way for students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom outdoors,” says Gill. “It’s real-world experience.”

That experience is what brought Melissa Keeney to Hub. Keeney, an AmeriCorps member, previously worked for Raleigh’s Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. Distributing food made her realize how disconnected people are from their food’s origin. She felt that Hub was a way to help right that.

“It’s amazing that a school system has its own urban farm right in its own backyard, and that students have the opportunity to engage in all aspects of the outdoors at such a young age,” says Keeney.

Hub reaches beyond students, too, with adult-oriented workshops such as mushroom inoculation and vermicomposting, beekeeping and rock-stove building. It’s all part of the larger aimto empower a new connection to food in Durham at large.

“A lot of the mission of Hub is to connect outside organizations doing good work and facilitating connections between communities,” says Gill. “We want to disseminate great programs and make them more accessible. We want to be a cultural agent for changea hub.”

To that end, Gill wants to grow Hub’s staff, expand its internship program, and increase interaction with the community. She envisions farmers markets and farm stands as well as connections with restaurants and other local businesses.

But she also recognizes that starting a program of this size and partnering with a school system presents special challenges, particularly in increasing the workload of overclocked teachers preparing students for testing.

“It’s a sensitive issue because we need funding and staffing, but we don’t want to take resources away from teachers and schools,” admits Gill. “We just want to provide a place where people can get something out of the experience. We have to make sure that the students make connections and learn concepts in that compact amount of time.”

Still, a cheerful Gill expects that the programs and connections at Hub will inspire other school systems. And she soon hopes to have a large enough curriculum to begin working with younger kids and collaborate with the same cohort through high school, promoting long-term engagement meant to last a lifetime.

“Starting young helps kids make direct connections with where their food comes from,” says Gill. “They learn concepts that they will use throughout the rest of their lives. They will hopefully use that knowledge to create positive change.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Planting Seeds”