Using Permaculture to Improve the Teaching and Learning of Science

by Nelson Lebo, The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

Some people describe permaculture as a system of science and ethics. While ethics guide permaculturists, it is the use of science to design and develop sustainable and regenerative systems that places them in a position to contribute to the improvement of science teaching and learning worldwide. Over the last four years, I have been researching a permaculture approach to junior secondary (years 9 and 10 in New Zealand) science, but my findings can be applied to all levels of schooling. Through the research process, I have identified five characteristics of permaculture that can be employed to engage students in transformative, relevant, and local learning experiences. Those characteristics are: permaculture thinking; permaculture techniques; permaculture properties; permaculture practitioners; and, the transformative nature of permaculture. This article explains the five characteristics and provides examples of how practicing permaculturists can partner with local science teachers in symbiotic relationships.

But first, I’ll provide background on two challenges facing science and sustainability education worldwide. Most permaculturists may not be aware that there is a global crisis in science education. More and more students are dropping out of science beyond the compulsory years because they find it boring, abstract, and having little relevance to their lives. At the same time, many secondary school teachers feel they cannot include sustainability education in their practice because they consider it an add-on to an already overcrowded curriculum. Findings from my research suggest that these two problems can be combined into one solution. In other words, by including sustainability in the form of scientifically-based permaculture practices can engage students in learning while including important sustainability lessons. To echo Bill Mollison: The problem(s) is (are) the solution(s).

One key to the successful integration of permaculture ways of thinking in science education is not to try to teach permaculture. On the surface this may appear counterintuitive, but there is logic behind it. If a permaculturist were to approach a science teacher with the suggestion of teaching permaculture as part of the science curriculum, it is likely the teacher would say, “No thanks.” Most teachers feel that the curriculum is already overcrowded and would not consider adding anything.

On the other hand, if a permaculturist were to approach a science teacher with the suggestion of helping make science more relevant to students, the chances of the teacher accepting would rise dramatically. This is an example of using permaculture thinking (looking for opportunities for mutualism) to increase the potential uptake by science teachers of a permaculture approach to the teaching and learning of science, which would then expose more students to common science-based permaculture techniques.

With the goals of harnessing energy flows and recycling waste products on site, permaculturists use a range of science-based techniques when designing and managing their properties or homes. Many of these techniques can be explained and explored in ways that are easily accessible to science students. Learning about some of these techniques can help make science more relevant, hands-on and hopeful for students. For example, a food forest or organic garden (cultivated ecologies) can be used to help students learn about science concepts such as biodiversity, materials cycling, and predator/prey relationships. At the same time, students are exposed to sustainability ideas such as organics and ‘food miles’.

Another common permaculture technique that can be related to science students is the no-dig garden. Permaculturists recognize that most natural ecosystems have loose, friable soils while most conventional farms have compacted soils resulting from heavy machinery or too many concentrated, large, hoofed animals. Compacted soils are less favorable to many food plants, and reduce the infiltration of water, which increases the chances of runoff and erosion during storms and decreases the amount of water stored in the earth between rain events. A no-dig garden demonstrates an applied understanding of porosity and permeability, the water cycle, root function, and the soil food web. Many teachers may welcome a local permaculturist helping make these potentially “boring” subjects come alive for students within the context of local, organic food production.

Additionally, many permaculturists build or renovate their homes to be energy-efficient or energy-independent. Regarding heating and cooling, this means passive solar design, which consists of solar gain, thermal mass, and insulation. In the context of science teaching and learning, solar gain can be used during lessons on the sun, or in conjunction with a variety of lessons on heat and heat transfer, which also happen be the perfect time to expose students to the concepts of thermal mass and insulation. In our small city in New Zealand, many hundreds of students have learned about these topics in the context of our “Eco-Thrifty Renovation” ( through “The Little House That Could” programme (find on Facebook), PowerPoint presentations in their schools, and field trips to our home. This leads to the third characteristic of a permaculture approach to science education: permaculture properties.

House-proud is an understatement when describing many permaculturists’ attitudes toward their homes and properties. Hundreds, and in many cases thousands, of hours are spent developing highly sustainable homesteads both rural and urban. Making science relevant to learners has been a major push in the science education reform movement, and my findings appear to indicate that relevancy provided by field trips to permaculture properties was appreciated by the teacher and nearly all of the students in the study. Carefully planned field trips to permaculture properties also provide experiential learning opportunities and place science in local contexts that emphasize sustainability. Most students love field trips, and their enthusiasm can be harnessed in a classroom both leading up to and following those that a thoughtfully designed and managed. A mature permaculture property is the product of ecological literacy and applied ecological design. Such properties, and their stewards, can serve as important landmarks and guides for students along their learning journeys through school and beyond. While a field trip is likely to have immediate impacts on students in numerous ways, my observations during many years of teaching environmental science have been that some of those experiences, with their inspiring hosts, continue to inform the way young people make sense of the world for months and years afterward. This leads to the forth characteristic of a permaculture approach to science education: permaculture practitioners.

Another way to enhance the relevance of science for students, particularly those who may not plan to pursue a career in science, is to introduce them to a local scientist who wears overalls instead of a lab coat. Those members of a community who actively practice permaculture can be described as systems thinkers, change agents, and citizen scientists. In these respects they can serve as role models for students who meet them. Permaculture practitioners can give a local, human face to the concept of sustainability, which can help to demystify it for students and teachers alike.

It is the practice of science that places permaculturists in the position to enter into educational partnerships with science teachers. Permaculturists can demonstrate their knowledge and practice of science in their homes and properties as described above. Many permaculturists also practice science on their properties by making observations, collecting data, and conducting simple controlled experiments. For example, I spend time nearly everyday observing my gardens, fruit trees, and chickens for signs of change. I also collect temperature data on the thermal performance of my renovated villa, and often experiment with different cultivars, different applications of compost and compost tea, and weed control methods. For many students, meeting a citizen scientist who practices science in a familiar setting (home and garden) can broaden their perspective, and for some students it may change their attitudes about studying science in school for the better.

My final point is on the transformative nature of permaculture. In the Australian documentary series, Global Gardener, Mollison describes a transformative learning process where he experienced sadness and anger over the destructiveness of humanity, before retreating into nature where he made careful observations of ecosystems that ultimately led to the concept of permaculture. In my years as an educator and permaculture practitioner, I have observed many students and colleagues go through similar transformative learning experiences. The big difference between them and Mollison, of course, is that they did not invent permaculture but rather discovered permaculture as a new frame of reference. Based on these observations, I believe it is possible to design transformative learning experiences that mimic Mollison’s.

The curriculum that I designed for one science class in New Zealand included the three fundamental stages of transformative learning: 1) a disorienting dilemma; 2) looking for and trying out alternative ways of knowing; 3) adopting an alternative worldview. I call this learning process a ‘transformative chronology,’ and in my research it consisted of three science units: 1) global climate change; 2) ecology; 3) agriculture. Although these were the units that the teacher allowed me to join his class for, this was not the order in which he normally teaches them. However, reordering them was amenable to him because it did not require any extra work, and at the conclusion of my research he said it was a logical order from big picture issues to small scale, local solutions, such as those highlighted during the field trips mentioned above. While it is unlikely that this approach to science education will dramatically transform students into permies overnight, it may just plant the seeds that will one day germinate, grow and flower. Equally important, it may help transform some science teachers attitudes toward including sustainability in their practice. Productive partnership – mutualism in the language of ecology – works for nature, and it may just work for science education.

Full thesis available here (3mb PDF).


Nelson Lebo is an ecological design and education consultant who lives in Whanganui, New Zealand. Over the last 20 years he has been: a secondary science teacher; an award-winning environmental educator; an organic farmer; a ‘green’ builder; and, a doctoral student. After developing one of the most sustainable properties in North America – a 38-acre farmstead in New Hampshire, USA – Nelson set his sights on a PhD in sustainability education at the University of Waikato (Hamilton, New Zealand). While writing his thesis, Nelson and his wife developed one of the most sustainable suburban properties in New Zealand, which they use as a model for whole community sustainability education.