With a committment to best practices and innovative solutions, we recently published an article in _SCAPE magazine, which is the quarterly magazine of the Minnesota Chapter of ASLA (American Society of Landsacpe Architects). The article describes the grass roots research and development of a new soil amendment that MSP Outdoors has been using forthe past few years that is proving to provide a much more sustainalbe and long-term alternative to traditional fertilizers and artificial growth stimulators.
Traditionally, the profession of landscape architecture is unbeknownst to students until college, myself included. Through participation in an Advanced Biology class and an extracurricular research program, a group of high school students from Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minnesota discovered the possibility and science behind developing a sustainable planting environment. As the results of their research began to answer questions, those answers produced more questions. Ultimately, they realized the possibility of a sustainable soil enhancer that could help invigorate urban soils without chemicals or big label products. This grass-roots research emerged from a commitment to STEM education and introduced students to the field of landscape architecture through science, an avenue not commonly associated with landscape architecture.
As part of their mission, Providence Academy’s curriculum “promotes superior academic achievement, mastery of skills and content, character development and citizenship.” Under the direction of Dr. Yvonne Boldt, the senior level Advanced Biology classes have been conducting field research since the spring of 2009. This course typically hosts 12-16 students and has led to an increase in extracurricular research activity. As an extension to this course, and the entire Biology department, the volunteer Soil Application Research Program was formed in 2010 and is expected to host at least 25 students this summer. Last summer, while working on a research grant, the students and some recent graduates logged 588 volunteer hours. In working with the community, the summer program is also available to students from other schools. Given the popularity of the summer program, last fall Dr. Boldt extended the extracurricular research program into the school year. Thus far this school year, twenty-eight students have logged 154 volunteer research hours.
RESEARCH AND PRODUCT
Prior to this new opportunity, the research process was studied with “cook book” labs that, although having their merits, offer predictable results that focus more on the process than the questions. Given the opportunity to expand the classroom and create their own experiment, research began on several recently planted maple trees along the front of the school. With support from the City of Plymouth, exploration was conducted to help determine best practices for future plantings. The trees were each given different applications of traditional tree planting practices including nitrogen-rich fertilizer, standard wood chips, and compost. Control trees received only topsoil. After several months of calculating soil nutrients, chlorophyll, new growth rates, and trunk diameter, it was concluded that with good soil, no additional treatments are necessary for growth and establishment of plant materials. They came to a valid conclusion considering trees in a natural forest setting are not artificially fertilized or mulched, however, not quite the silver bullet the class was looking for.
Fortunately, this led to another question and research possibility, how do we get good soil? The class began looking at the soil microbial community which is integral to nutrient cycling, thereby making nutrients available to plants. Perhaps a more appropriate question is “Can it be replicated in the urban environment?”
The scientist and entrepreneur team at a small start-up company called Precision Organics had been working on this possibility of enhancing the naturally occurring nutrient cycle, however, they lacked the laboratory to conduct their own research. Seizing the opportunity to bring “real world” research into the classroom, Providence Academy and Dr. Boldt partnered with Precision Organics to begin conducting a series of experiments to verify the validity of this carbon-based product.
Beginning in April of 2014, the Advanced Biology class shifted their attention from plant growth to soil microbial activity. Instead of measuring leaf tissue and plant growth, the class began looking at soil respiration as an indicator microbial activity. After serval successful experiments with soil, compost, and an organic test product, the students began asking another set of questions. What would happen if these positive results were applied to plants? As the school year wound down, several questions were left unanswered. Fortunately, a summer volunteer program was already established and approximately 25 students, including recent graduates, continued the experiments on soil respiration and radish plants.
When asked about the student’s experience, Brendon answered, “The experience has provided me a springboard for trying new projects and possibly starting my own research. This project allowed me to put to use my programming skills particularly in the area of data analytics and scripting. I was able to write a statistical analysis script that greatly increased the processing of foliar, soil, and tree growth data for the Soil Application Research Program.”
From a product development perspective the research thus far is encouraging and supports the possibility of reviving urban soils and increasing plant health and survivability through the application of an organic byproduct. In fact, the increase in microbial soil activity was almost incalculable when compared to traditional soil supplements such as fertilizer and compost. Is this naturally derived byproduct a possible new alternative to expensive fertilizers and volatile composts? Can this organic byproduct reduce plant mortality? Thus far, this byproduct successfully revived microbial activity in a low quality sub-soil obtained from over 15 feet below the soil surface during recent construction on Providence Academy property.
For the next generation of the work force, engaging students with “real world” applications of science classes has focused their attention on developing solutions to create and sustain healthy landscapes and create a sustainable alternative to traditional fertilizer through questions, not chemicals. The research obtained thus far supports the possibilities for a reduced reliance on chemicals to rejuvenate urban soils. Beyond the research results, the entire process has equipped students with critical thinking skills that will prepare them for college and future career endeavors. After participating in both the Advanced Biology class and the summer program, Jenny added, “This research experience and class helped me decide that I wanted to major in the field of Environmental Studies and continue to research plants and their effects on the environment.”
With a commitment to expanding this curriculum, Dr. Boldt explains, “Next year we are initiating a set of Environmental Science Research elective courses, to increase the number of students that can do novel research and to allow us to address a greater range of questions in the research setting each year.” As the program broadens, Providence Academy and partners in the green industry plan to create research plots both on campus and spread throughout the Twin City metro area and Western Wisconsin. As the research moves beyond the classroom walls, lectures from Landscape Architects, Engineers, City Planners, and Scientists will further enhance the project and the students’ understanding of these professions.
As a reward for all of the hard work, the students presented posters on their research twice at International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Annual Conference and are committed to presenting more research at the Soil Science Society of America’s National Meeting in the fall of 2015. Many of the posters and papers these High School students are presenting alongside are prepared by college students and post-graduate professionals.
A recent study conducted by STEM Education Coalition suggests that “only 30% of 12th-graders who took the ACT test are ready for college-level work in science.” The students at Providence Academy are not only ready for their college courses, but have already begun to integrate research with business development. As their research continues and new questions emerge, the next solution to sustainability might just be coming from a consortium of Landscape Architects and Scientists working as one profession with endless possibilities.