Grant will pave the way for a virtual arboretum at URI

Thousands of people— students, visitors, faculty members— walk the Kingston campus paths everyday en route to classes, meetings, cars or eateries and along the way most of them are unaware that they are moving through one of the most extensive arboretums in the state.Chances are in this age of communication, most of those walkers also have smart phones and later this year the ancient world of trees will be linked to the modern world of electronic access.Thanks to a $24,400 grant from the Provost’s office, a group of faculty members headed up by Dr. Larry Englander, a plant pathologist, will lead an effort to log all of the noteworthy trees and shrubs on the URI campus into a program that will be available as an app on smart phones. People walking the campus can stop by a tree, log into the app and then immediately get a description of the tree they are looking at and also any pertinent history about the specimen—some trees, for example were planted as memorials or for special occasions, others may have unusual histories.The whole thing started a while back for Englander, an unabashed lover of trees, who said that with the pace of construction on the campus, he is concerned about the fate of some of the trees. Lands and grounds personnel are aware of many of the plantings that have significance, he stresses, but there should be some way to create a permanent record of what is on the campus. “I was moved with concern that we are removing far more than we are planting,” says Englander who uses the campus plants as teaching tools for his students. “I think the amount of teaching materials on the campus has been diminishing significantly.”

URI officials now have a policy of treading carefully and doing research on plants before any construction begins. In the cases of the construction of Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences and the new pharmacy building, the departments of Plant Sciences and Landscape Architecture were consulted in the planning process, for example.

Trees and shrubs are being added to the main campus all the time. Many come from East Farm where there are trial gardens of woody plants brought in from other parts of the country. Once the plants get to a certain size, they are transplanted to the main campus.

Englander says his concern about commemorating plantings on the main campus is shared. One of the colleagues he spoke to was Ed Lamagna, of computer science “who I knew has a passion for trees. Ed said ‘You know, we should build something that people can use and see what’s here.’”

Some of the work on the URI arboretum has already been done. There have been a number of groups which have taken inventory and so much data is already available.

The fact that so many are interested in the campus plantings was clearly illustrated when Englander put together a meeting call out to people who are interested in URI’s trees and 30 people showed up at the Alumni Center. As the main speaker, he invited URI Provost Donald DeHayes whose background is in forestry.

Englander knew DeHayes was the right choice for the speaker—he met the provost in his office one summer day and explained his idea, offering to take the provost out for a tour of the campus someday. DeHayes insisted on the tour right then despite the fact that a thunder storm hit but that did not deter DeHayes who walked in the rain for about an hour walking from tree to tree, describing the trees and their geological history. Says Englander, “It was thrilling to me—I said ‘Wow!’——here is someone who appreciates the potential of what we have here.”

The Provost noted that the campus is a unique teaching opportunity. “Everything out there is a potential learning experience; even when a tree is dying—it has a story to tell. What’s there is great but it doesn’t do anyone any good if they don’t know about it. People have these smart phones—why shouldn’t they be able to learn something from them just as they can on their computers at home?”

Englander then turned to Lamagna for technical help, saying “I have no experience in this area — I don’t even own a cell phone.”

Then came the announcement that the provost’s office was looking for RFPs for “Innovative Approaches Using Technology to Enhance the Student Experience at URI.” The arboretum idea seemed like a perfect fit, says Englander.

The more he talked about the idea the quicker the concept took form by tapping other expertise on campus. Peter August of Natural Resources Science, has a renowned GIS center that can log all the tree positions, Englander can oversee the taxonomy and natural history of the trees, Jean-Yves Herve and Lamagna of computer science can accomplish the programming, Karen Stein (English) and Kim Hensley Owens (Writing) can oversee the editing and Ron Hutt (Art) can oversee the development of the app regarding the design of the user interface.

Each of the faculty members will involve students, mostly undergraduates, in the project developing a digital dataset of tree locations, composing the descriptive texts for each specimen, developing the application software for both Apple and Android platforms, and editing the text. In addition, photos of specimens taken during the seasons will be included.

The terms of the grant dictate that the project has to be completed by the end of the calendar year. And by that time, walkers on the campus can be exhorted to “start up your smart phones!”