About the Virtual Prairie Project - a Brief History (Mel Sadeghpour, ENVS)
Over the past 17 years, we have replaced much of the non-native trees and turf on the DMACC Urban Campus with native plants. This started with a grant from the IDOT LRTF and has grown to cover around 1/8 of our grounds. We have two native plant bio-swale areas in parking lot drainages, an outdoor classroom space, and many other areas of native landscaping blooming across our campus. We also have a "food forest" on our grounds. These are all components of our Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE).
It looks gorgeous (to most), and is providing much needed habitat as well as other ecosystem services here in our little "Urban oasis". However, it is not really fulfilling one of its most critical roles; that of a truly educational space. While I (environmental science and ecology professor) have my students out on campus regularly, few (if any) of my colleagues are using the outdoor spaces for educational purposes.
Not only are my fellow faculty, staff, and DMACC Urban campus students missing out on these opportunities, but the larger community is, as well. We have a constant flow or people moving across our campus. They come to attend meetings, presentations, special events, and even just to get out of the heat. We are an open campus, and everyone is welcome here at DMACC Urban. Many campus visitors ask questions about the beautiful prairie plants, but rarely is the right person around at the time to give them any answers or even lead them in the right direction.
To me, this all adds up to a failure to communicate with our audience, and to valuable educational opportunities and experiences lost.
Our vision for this project is to develop a communication tool that will not only educate, but inspire; teach people about their outdoor environment, and then draw them out into it for immersive experiences. To do that, we need to share:
- The importance of native landscaping
- The historical, cultural, and ecological significance of prairie
- The ties between native landscaping and native pollinators, and their larger significance in today’s world
- The identity of the various plants on campus, including their roles in the ecosystem
- Activity guides and curricular inspiration
The outcome of the project itself will be an interactive tall grass prairie website, including information on prairie ecosystems and habitat, pollinators and other residents of the prairies, and more. It will be linked to the outdoor learning environment through signage that will include Bitly URLs and scan tag technology. People out in the campus grounds can simply link to the website via these signs to learn more about the plants they are seeing and access links to additional site information. DMACC Urban students, faculty, and staff will be encouraged to use the OLE through activity guides and curricular suggestions on the website. We will further develop our social media sharing, outdoor events, and other methods of getting our community excited about being outdoors on the DMACC Urban campus and in the tall grass prairie ecosystem.
This project was supported by a generous grant from the Iowa Department of Transportation Living Roadway Trust Fund. Additional funding and support were provided by: