“You can’t dream about what you don’t know and you can’t want to be something you don’t know about,” said W.L. Swain’s Elementary STEAM teacher Nikki Hampton. “I’m the one who takes the kids’ learning and turns it into an actual, physical thing they can do.”

In her classroom are a plethora of projects, ranging from foam rockets to robots, Popsicle stick bridges in the midst of construction to chick eggs being incubated, and plant experiments to giant worms in plastic containers.

Hampton, who is in her second year of teaching STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — said she had a “crazy dream” when she started with the position. Her first major project was to help kids understand that food actually comes from the ground.

With the approval and assistance of Principal Elizabeth Anderson, Hampton planted six gardens outside the building last year, and called them victory gardens.

“A lot of the students learn about the world wars, and a victory garden helped them connect what they were learning to the rest of the world,” she said.

A victory garden, Hampton said, was an idea used during wars when schools, families and towns would grow their own vegetables to supplement food for both soldiers abroad and the communities they left behind.

And bringing this concept closer to home, from the vegetables grown in the victory gardens, her STEAM classes canned vegetable soup and handed them out to veterans during their visit on Veterans Day this past fall.

Hampton said her students learn about all of the different categories of STEAM through their garden — including decomposition, plant life cycles, fractions, measurements, building, artistic labeling and weather. Hampton said her job is to get kids thinking and wondering, and she has seen hands-on learning make a lasting impact on her students.

“For my friends who struggle with being still or with attention problems, I give them a mental break,” Hampton said. “STEAM is usually a gifted program but we wanted to reach everybody. I see every student over the course of the week.”

The garden, Hampton said, allows students to get their hands dirty, get into the soil and see what the ground is actually composed of.

Hampton said she’s been able to recruit the help of Tractor Supply and the Farm Bureau to donate some supplies for the school to establish around 20 raised beds, expanding their current efforts composting and gardening.

When the beds are in place, Hampton plans to start off growing salad ingredients and later moving on to pizza toppings and eventually getting some of their food to be served in the school cafeteria.

Over the course of the past year, Hampton has seen students becoming protective of their plants, learning more about how to grow for food and making a “restaurant for worms” through composting.

But the WLSES garden isn’t the only way Hampton said her students are discovering how STEAM infiltrates through what they are learning.

Hampton has many other ideas for how to incorporate science, technology, engineering, art and math into hands-on activities and challenge students to think in new ways. For example, with some of the pumpkins grown last fall, her classes had a “pumpkin chunking” contest, where students created catapults and launched what they had grown.

She loves being able to tell them of the many jobs in the workforce that use skills students are developing in her class. When her classes engineered rockets, she was able to tell them being a rocket scientist is an actual job, and some students were blown away.

“It’s all about thinking and relearning,” Hampton said. “The future’s not for people who can learn, it’s for people who can learn and relearn.”

And students aren’t the only ones learning. Hampton said she’s learning more about how to garden, especially after planting pumpkins too late in the season last year.

“I would pray for the pumpkins to grow, but Oct. 31 came and went, and we didn’t have anything,” she said. “But this year I had probably 45 pumpkins, every one of them reseeded. They took over the okra and tomatoes even.”

But Hampton said that failing is a part of the process of learning, and she tries to instill that with her students.

“Sometimes what we try doesn’t always work out. But we’re slowly taking away the fear of failure and creating a growth mindset, so students will become comfortable with trying again.”

Hampton loves her job, and wants to continue facilitating hands-on experiences for students to explore, wonder and find out where they individually thrive.

Tolbert Elementary School has just purchased a greenhouse, but other than that, Hampton and WLSES are the pioneers of Gordon County Schools in incorporating gardening into learning material.