Five Reasons Arts Education Is Essential to Sustainability

Five Reasons Arts Education Is Essential to Sustainability

by Karen Brown

Troy Howard carrot seed packet

Thoreau wrote, “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect miracles.”

For me, the Seed Division, <> a student-run business at Troy Howard Middle School, a public school in Belfast, Maine, is one such miracle. Troy Howard has become a national exemplar for school agriculture programs, featured in presentations around the country from Cornell University to the Philadelphia Flower Show and the National USDA Conference.

At a time when arts programs across the country are being slashed or eliminated, the Seed Division is thriving, due in large part to a creative approach for marketing the open-pollinated, organic, heirloom seeds that students grow and harvest themselves from their own school garden.

At Troy Howard, students design and produce hand-printed seed packets using environmentally friendly linoleum cuts, resulting in a product that is so charming, useful, and unique that it sells out to parents, at bookstores, and through other venues in the local community, while providing funding for their Garden Project.

So what do students learn from this engagement in the arts and how does this learning connect to sustainability? From my perspective, there are at least five good reasons this and many other art projects contribute to skills needed for sustainable living. By designing and producing seed packets:

1. Students learn to work on multi-disciplinary, cross-functional teams.  To produce packaging for their seeds, Troy Howard students cooperate with teachers, Garden Project team members, student printmakers, fellow artists, suppliers, and local retail stores. Through experiencing this rich variety of roles and functions through the iterative process of design, team members acquire understanding and skills from the one another, triggering even more ideas and insights. As creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson has said <>, "creativity…more often than not, comes about from the interaction of different disciplinary ways of looking at things." Such cultures of creative collaboration can be key to the development of innovative solutions to meet future challenges, especially on a local level. 

Troy Howard cukes seed packet

2. Students learn about materials. Manufacturing a seed packet requires linoleum, ink, and seed envelopes made of paper and adhesive. The process of selecting these materials opens an inquiry into sustainable choices: What are these materials made of? How were they obtained? Which materials are recycled or recyclable? What do they cost, both in dollars and environmental impacts? Which were produced locally? Which have long-term, short-term or one-time uses? Which are derived from petroleum? Are alternatives available? And so on.

Troy Howard Pumpkin seed packet

3. Students learn to "think backwards." To make a linoleum block that successfully prints a seed packet, students must learn to "think backwards," that is, to cut a mirror image of the illustration and lettering so that it reads "right" when reversed onto the paper. Follow? In fact, most forms of fabrication require the capacity to think spatially and work backwards, inside out, upside down, or in the negative, inviting perspectives that are new, challenging, and often downright beguiling. If students want seeds to be available for a holiday sale, they need to plan backwards with the end in mind – from the date of the sale to the point in time when packages must be designed, printed, filled, and delivered, to the moment in the garden when seeds must be harvested and sorted.

Troy Howard lettuce seed packet

4. Students learn how to contribute to the life of their community. Through their seed and produce sales, students of the Seed Division enjoy the opportunities and sense of security that come from deriving their livelihood from participation in their community. While earning enough to cover their program's operating expenses, the students also make a valuable contribution to fellow gardeners and their local food system by saving and propagating precious heirloom varieties that are adapted to local soils and climate. And they experience perhaps the greatest joy known to all makers-of-things: the exhilaration of moving an intangible idea – step-by-step – into the reality of three dimensions, so that it can be shared and enjoyed by others.

Troy Howard tomato seed packet

5. Students learn the role of beauty and wit in everyday life. Nineteenth-century architect and designer William Morris wrote,  "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." A lot us (starting with me) fail at this in the current consumer culture. But an arts project like this one at Troy Howard can demonstrate to students that by shifting from consumer to producer they become the source of the beauty, values, and character that they believe products can and should embody. They begin to understand that they can become the change they want to see in the world, in part through the power of their talents, skills, and aesthetic choices.

What would Socrates do?

Inquiry for the classroom using Socratic dialogues


  •  Part of the reason seeds from the Troy Howard Seed Division sell so well is the popular package design. What are ways that packaging might influence your purchase decisions?
  • How many things do you make in a day, month, or year? Do you feel or think differently about things that you make or that are made by people you know personally, compared to things you buy ready-made? In general, which do you prefer: handmade things, or manufactured things?
  • Students at Troy Howard Middle School are encouraged to grow their own food. How would growing your own food year-round affect what or how you eat? How would your schedule be affected if you needed to spend time each day growing a lot of the food you ate?





9 comments posted

this a great article. :)

Submitted by brina mac (not verified) on Wed, 2012-08-15 21:09.

this a great article.

new career in teaching

Submitted by melissa (not verified) on Wed, 2011-05-18 03:57.

This is very inspiring. I just earned my Masters in Elementary Ed. after 10 years (with a few years off in between to raise 2 boys that are in school full time now) This is a career change for me, I have been in the dental field for 16 years but always thought that I wanted to become a teacher. Thanks for sharing this with us!

Young growers

Submitted by Pat cohen (not verified) on Sun, 2011-04-24 22:08.

You’re so cool! I don’t suppose I’ve read anything like this before. Great school.

An elementary school teacher

Submitted by Debbie (not verified) on Sun, 2010-02-07 05:33.

As an elementary school teacher, I have always understood the value of inquiry and project-based activities in the classroom. There is so much value for children in authentic learning experiences, and I would imagine that the students at Troy Howard feel intrinsically motivated to research and learn the necessary skills for the program to thrive. Unfortunately, our country seems to be shifting away from current best practices such as inquiry and towards a "teach it, learn it (hopefully), and check it off" approach with reforms and merit pay based upon student standardized test performance.

Thanks for sharing the story of The Seed Division project. Very inspiring!

Connecting the dots*

Submitted by Melin (not verified) on Thu, 2010-02-04 22:23.

Thanks so much for your insightful post! Very engaging strategy of making great points by way of a concrete and inspiring example from the other side of the country. I will certainly follow the blog, explore the rest of the Center for Ecoliteracy's website and share these resources with teachers, landscape architects, and friends!

Thank you!

Submitted by Andy (not verified) on Fri, 2010-01-29 08:42.

It is truly inspiring to be reminded of the power in small things. School is where the seeds of the future are being planted. Thank you for the Thoreau quote, as well.

Fantastic program!

Submitted by Melissa (not verified) on Fri, 2010-01-29 07:32.

What a great story!

I do letterpress printing so I completely understand the difficulty of designing and printing the packaging. I'm also an amateur gardener with an interest in heirloom vegetables, so I also appreciate the joy of growing my own vegetables and saving their seeds.

What a fantastic project to teach kids these skills that will be applicable in so many other areas of their life! I would hope that more schools and youth programs will start similar programs.

And I must say that the packaging for the cukes is the cutest thing I've seen in a long time!


Submitted by Jenny Rieke (not verified) on Tue, 2010-01-26 15:10.

Makes me think that starting an arts council could get a real boost this way- we have Syngenta, the humongus seed processing company as a new economic engine. Perhaps some seed-focused intergenerational community art is just the ticket to engage people where they're at. Thank you!

I like this post. I like these seeds

Submitted by Kris (not verified) on Thu, 2010-01-14 22:50.

This is very refreshing to see! We've tried something similar at my school, and I never really had thought about some of your points.


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