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Forget orgo — in this class, students study Duke's trees

In spring 2022, students in ENV 245, Theory and Applications of Sustainability, collaborated with Duke staff and researchers on a project centered around the sustainability impacts of the University’s trees. 

Over 17,000 trees on campus significantly protect the University’s environment, according to Roger Conner, Duke landscape services’ superintendent of tree management. 

“Trees being on campus are reducing our heat island effect … Having all the shade and the evaporation helps cool the area that we’re in,” Conner said. “It also helps sustainability in that it keeps erosion from happening because the trees are protecting the ground … It filters the rain, filters our oxygen, gets rid of our carbon monoxide.”

Students conducted fieldwork on East Campus, home to some of the oldest trees on campus, to learn about these concepts. With the assistance of Conner and doctoral student Renata Poulton Kamakura, students sampled trees by measuring their height and calibers. 

Junior Lorenzo Maggio Laquidara felt the field work experience allowed him to learn about sustainability at a “much deeper and personal level.”

“Doing the field work and learning about the different tree species and seeing that some of them are more fragile than others, some others more sturdy, and they interact in a specific way engages you,” Laquidara said. 

Students also used a software called i-tree that quantifies sustainability impacts from a tree including carbon sequestration and energy savings. Carbon sequestration is the process by which trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce the carbon footprint. The reduction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a sustainability advantage for addressing climate change

“This class is one way that students understand how important sustainability practices are to combat perhaps the largest challenge facing our world right now, which is climate change. And it does it in a way that is very experiential,” said Charlotte Clark, associate professor of the practice of sustainability and professor for ENV 245.  

Students in the course conduct projects for real-world clients, most of whom are on campus. In spring 2022, students were asked to provide recommendations to Duke’s landscape architect, horticulture experts and landscaping services for improving the maintenance, health and sustainability of Duke’s landscape. 

In addition to field work, students conducted qualitative work to inform their recommendations. Students interviewed the manager of Bartlett Trees, a company that maintains Duke’s trees; Duke’s landscape architect; the director of Duke forests and other key stakeholders. They spoke with them about their perception of trees and their values to campus, from aesthetic, climate change and sustainability perspectives. 

Students also incorporated student perceptions of Duke’s landscape into the research by creating surveys to evaluate the perspective that other students hold about the advantages and disadvantages of campus trees as well as how much time they spend outdoors. These surveys were administered over a few weeks through mediums like listservs, GroupMe, WhatsApp and WeChat. 

To end the semester, students compiled their research and presented recommendations to the clients. 

“Our key recommendation was not only to plant more trees, but to devote more funds to management … Most of the funds now go for planting new trees, but then those trees don't have a very high likelihood of survival,” Laquidara said. “So what needs to be done is checking the health of the tree cyclically.”

Other students recommended that additional types of data, such as crown light exposure, be collected in the database for future use. Crown light exposure is a measure of how much light the top of a tree receives and the effect it has on growth rate. 

“They were taking the information they learned and expanding it into: how does it work in the real world?” Conner said. 

ENV 245 will continue to be offered in spring 2023. 

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