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Creating a Living Classroom

Dan Johnson and students working with trees
Assistant Professor Dan Johnson teaches a group of student about plant identification. The students study the campus landscape as part of a course in the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Science.

With about 600 acres and 5,000 trees, U of I’s Moscow campus serves as a living and growing classroom for students across disciplines

Landscape architecture student Sara Williams doesn’t like to look at pictures of plants in her textbook. She wants to get outside and see the plants in action, in the real world, being used.

“The campus is a really good example,” said Williams, a senior from Coeur d’Alene studying in the College of Art and Architecture. “Being able to see the plant utilized on campus where it has a lot of weight on those aesthetics is really helpful. If we just sitting inside looking at slides all day, I wouldn’t learn half as much as being able to go touch it and observe.”

Students and faculty regularly use the diversity of the University of Idaho landscaping to teach landscape architecture concepts, fire science, environmental science, and horticulture, among others.

Study in the Natural Environment

In the landscape architecture programs, students take a series of classes where they hike around campus observing and identifying plant and tree species. The students examine the overall design of an area, how the plants are used and why the design is aesthetically pleasing.

“We discuss how it has been implemented in a design way,” she said. “It’s really helpful.”

They also get to apply their knowledge to real-world projects. Joshua Hail, who graduated with his master’s in landscape architecture in 2013, designed the World War I memorial grove in the Shattuck Arboretum.

While selecting the plants to accompany the engraved rock, Hail looked at World War I memorials in Europe and post-WWI architecture. He used weeping spruces to create an arch and rhododendrons were donated to add color.

“Going through this program has done me a great service. I have a much better understanding of the plant materials,” said Hail, who lives in New York and is working toward his landscape architecture license. “I’m better educated than most people who are just starting out because I’ve gotten to work on some huge projects.”

The grove is just one example of the types of projects students in the programs envision around campus.

“The World War I grove was a long time thing,” said Paul Warnick, horticulturist for the University of Idaho’s arboreta. “We started thinking about it a long time ago, and I thought we should do something about it and Josh thought we should do something about it.”

U of I professor and students examining bright fall leaves
Faculty member Don Brigham teaches plant materials and design in the landscape architecture program. He uses the U of I campus to help students understand landscape design.

Year-Round Learning

The diversity of plant life in U of I’s two arboreta makes them perfect living classrooms.

“I see lots of classes in here, during nice weather both spring and fall,” he said.

Adjunct faculty member Don Brigham teaches the plant materials and design sequence in the landscape architecture program. He wrote the textbook for his classes, and included examples from the U of I campus to help students get a better understanding for landscaping.

“It’s a great campus landscape to teach from because there’s so much diversity of plant materials and it’s also very accessible,” he said. “The book encompasses all the plants I think they should know. I try to share this with the students and give them a fuller appreciation that the U of I is really blessed to have such an abundance of different plants.”

Brigham said he’s never been a fan of teaching about plants from slides and screens.

“I think it just helps sink into different levels in their mind. I think they need to experience the plant as hands-on as possible,” he said.

The diversity of plant types, shapes and ages give students a good idea of how big an oak tree will grow, compared to a flowering plum, Brigham said.

“You need to have that absorbed to use plants in a proper place,” he said.

Assistant Professor Dan Johnson said the U of I landscape helps him when teaching dendrology and plant identification classes in the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Science in the College of Natural Resources.

Being able to use the weekly lab time efficiently is important to Johnson, and he uses much of U of I’s 600 acres for class. For his fall dendrology class, Johnson and his 60 students study in the arboreta as well as across campus.

“It’s all about tree identification. We can pick up a lot species we need on campus, but have to go over to the arboretum, especially for a lot of the Eastern species,” he said. “We learn about 160 species in that class and probably a good 30 percent of them are only in the new arboretum.”

Students and Faculty performing science research in the U of I Arboretum
A group of students study the plantings around one of the ponds in the U of I Arboretum and Botanical Garden.

Campus Homes to Thousands of Trees

Outside of the arboreta, the U of I campus has over 4,000 trees. Maples are the most common tree, making up about 13 percent of campus, followed by spruce trees at 11 percent and oaks at 8 percent.

The tallest tree on the Moscow campus is a grand fir on the Administration Lawn, which towers at 129 feet tall.

Johnson said the class also observes the mature trees in the Shattuck Arboretum.

“David Rauk and his people have done a great job giving us lots of different species that we can get to fairly quickly which makes the lab more efficient,” he said.

Near Shattuck sits a small group of large, old trees. The six Douglas firs, one grand fir and one ponderosa pine were all planted around 1900 — likely the oldest source of shade at U of I.

In the spring, Johnson teaches a wood and plant physiology course, where students use the trees in the arboretum and botanical gardens to measure photosynthesis, transpiration and other biological processes.

“We use a lot of the conifer species there for labs,” he said. The plant diversity is essential to learning.

“If we didn’t have it, they wouldn’t be able to learn it,” he said. “Without the plantings on campus, the old arb and the new arb, I don’t know how it would work. They would just get clippings of plants that were brought into the lab and that’s not the same thing as seeing a tree. Its improved my courses just by having that access.”


Article by Tess Fox, University Communications & Marketing

Published in April 2018.

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