Taking Root

Global sustainability issues aren’t just a problem for environmental scientists to solve. Students from Ursinus are learning that—just like anything else—they are best viewed through a multidisciplinary lens...one perfectly suited for a liberal arts education.
Taking Root cover

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the 2023 edition of URSI (Ursinus Research, Scholarship, and Inquiry), the college’s annual academic research magazine.

In Lexi Fowler’s first year at Ursinus College, she began putting down roots.

She was nearing the end of her “Introduction to Environmental Studies” class, when she made her first visit to the nascent food forest being planted along the southeast edge of the Whittaker Environmental Research Station. It would be her first act of environmental stewardship. 

Empowering students: Lexi Fowler

Fowler and her friends were tasked with planting the pecan trees that are among the forest’s three flagship species, along with hazelnut and pawpaw. The trees’ roots were a tangled mess, and they were vulnerable to improper handling. Nonetheless, Patrick Hurley, co-director of the research station and director of the People and Urban Forest Research Program, entrusted the students with their care.

The first tree took almost an hour to plant. Hurley told Fowler and her friends to plant another. As they went, the students developed a method of digging pits that would keep the girdled roots from rebinding and strangling the trees before they could bear their first pecans. They quickly developed a connection to the site and the trees, even giving them names to show their affection. 

Three years later, as they prepare to graduate this spring, those students are leaders of the food forest, responsible for its care. “Anything that happens at the forest goes through us,” Fowler said, whether that means planting, weeding, mending fences or something completely unexpected. “There are things you wouldn’t experience unless you’re able to see the chaos that happens when you’re out there.”

The students solve the problems they encounter, applying what they’ve learned about plant biology, soil health and sustainability—and learning plenty more along the way. In the process, they’re building the skills to tackle much weightier challenges.

“It breaks down the really big problems like climate change and food insecurity into smaller problems. How is this tree going to live until tomorrow?” Fowler said. “Climate change is a big problem, but if you can keep a tree alive, that feels much more manageable. It’s an important start.”

parchment Empowering Students
Fowler’s hands-on work in the food forest draws on all the knowledge she’s gained while pursuing a double major in biology and environmental studies. Guided by the core questions of the Quest curriculum that shape how Ursinus students understand and encounter the world, it also serves as a model for how a liberal arts education can prepare students to approach some of the biggest problems now facing local and global communities.

“We create a series of experiences both experimental—relying on natural science methodologies—and experiential—leaning on social science and humanities insights, and arts as well—that give students a really robust set of learning opportunities at the interface of land management, climate change adaptation and sustainability,” said Hurley, who is a professor and chair of environmental studies.

The 1.75-acre food forest itself grew out of Hurley’s capstone environmental studies course in 2017, and now has about 450 native trees and shrubs with edible fruits, berries, leaves and blossoms that teach students how to understand, protect and benefit from the earth. Alongside the 2.5-acre campus farm, overseen by Director of Sustainability Kate Keppen and her sustainability fellows, the food forest is one of two linchpins of environmental education at Ursinus. But as Hurley and Keppen see it, answers to the most complex questions facing our world can be found anywhere.

“We use the entire campus to solve problems around climate change adaptation,” Hurley said. 

That could mean planting an herb garden or developing a new technique for growing gourds on the campus farm, or implementing a sustainable move-out across campus, all of which students have done. At each step, students are pairing technical and scientific knowledge with social and communication skills to turn theory into practice, making a small but significant impact on the world around them.

“It’s so important to empower students and give them the opportunity to think about problem solving,” said Denise Finney, an associate professor of biology who studies the benefits humans derive from the environment. “They’re not just swallowing a protocol. They’re taking an idea of their own and thinking through, ‘How do I make this happen, what are the decisions I need to make along the way, and how can I realize this project?’”

The Real World

At Ursinus, environmental education begins in the classroom but quickly moves beyond it. On the campus farm, Keppen works with her fellows to find solutions to the unpredictable series of questions posed by nature. When groundhogs barged into the farm this summer and destroyed the edamame plants the fellows had carefully tended, they needed to find a way to protect the rest of their crops. Recognizing that the soybean sprouts were decimated but everything else was untouched, they seized the opportunity to plant more soybeans as a defensive measure of sorts. Give the groundhogs what they want, and everyone goes home happy.

“Once they’re working through it, they see how it’s this blend of planning and immediate problem solving,” Keppen said of working on the farm.

By grounding an education in the physical realm just as much as the intellectual—in the ground, so to speak—Keppen and her fellow educators can teach students far more than any textbook. It’s an approach that she said lends itself well to addressing both the environmental and social issues we face, or “21st century problems” as she calls them. As an Ursinus alumna who double-majored in environmental studies and English and later worked in local government focused on stream protection and stormwater management, she knows exactly how important that balance can be.

The work sustainability fellows are asked to do goes far beyond the classroom, giving students the opportunity to put their ideas into practice, Keppen said.  

“We do projects here that are no different than if you were working in local government trying to get a rain garden installed, or working on a local organic farm,” she said.

Austin Mickles was among the students planting pecan trees with Fowler back in 2019 and remains an integral part of the food forest. As a biochemistry and environmental studies double major, she’s integrated both the natural and social sciences into research on soil health, finding that legumes, which foster nitrogen-rich soil, also help with carbon sequestration. She’s gone a step further by working with Finney to communicate the science to local farmers so they can improve their own sustainable practices.

“It’s been really good to take what I’ve learned and apply it in a way that goes beyond just reproducing the science I’ve made, and to see it blossom in a way that will leave an impact after I’m done with my education,” Mickles said.

Mickles was intimidated when she first went into a farmer’s field to conduct research, nervous she might harm the crops that are their livelihood. In time, though, she’s learned to analyze, interpret, and communicate her data, solving problems as they arise. After presenting her research at a conference this fall, she said, “I had a bunch of faculty members at well-known institutions ask what year of doctoral studies I was in.”

Lexi photo border

Fowler has also devoted herself to studying soil, developing a soil monitoring protocol for the food forest to help Hurley and her fellow students understand how the underground system is changing over time. Given that the forest was designed as a 150-year project, Fowler’s protocol, which she’s helping Hurley teach to his Forests and People class, will guide problem-solving in the forest long after she’s graduated.

She’s taken the project one step further, using clay soils derived from the monitoring process to create ceramic models of the trees and root systems that populate the farm. Like Mickles learning to communicate her research to farmers, Fowler is finding creative ways to spread knowledge and seek solutions that will help sustain a healthier environment.

If she were at a large university, Fowler said, she would be asked to narrow her interests and choose between focusing on the science or the art. Instead, she can pour herself into both and find even more meaningful results.

“At Ursinus, I’m given a lot of resources and I’m really well equipped to approach it from different directions at the same time,” Fowler said. “I can use my multidisciplinary experience to do something that will reach more people.”

Building Solutions

As a biology professor, Finney said she typically looks at the environment through the lens of natural science and data collection.

“But the challenges we face are not just about figuring out the right science,” she said. “They’re about thinking about how people interact with the environment, how these challenges shape individuals and communities, and how they’ve been shaped by history. We can’t just look at environmental challenges and solutions from this one perspective, and that’s what we’re really working on in the liberal arts.”

In her “Plant Biology” course, Finney teaches students about the role of plants in the environment and the services they provide to the ecosystem, whether that means sequestering carbon or relieving stress. One of the projects for the class asks students to design a planting that provides a specific service to a part of the Ursinus campus. Last spring, nearly half the class suggested the same problem to address: a section of sidewalk near the Wismer Center that regularly floods over to become a muddy mess. Several students came to the same solution on their own, suggesting a rain garden full of native plants that could absorb stormwater, diverting it from the sidewalk, where it is a nuisance, and streams, where it can cause pollution.

The project didn’t stop at the theoretical. Instead, students asked if they could make their vision a reality. They approached Steve Gehringer, the director of facilities, who was supportive, and developed detailed plans to build the garden. The plants in the rain garden were chosen to meet the location’s needs—accepting shade, tolerant of salt that will be used on the nearby sidewalk when it snows, capable of navigating all-or-nothing rain patterns. The rain garden is now part of Reimagine Ursinus-Collegeville, a project focused on building a more sustainable and environmentally resilient community that is also working to improve composting on campus.

“They’re flexing those skills of communication and problem solving and ideation,” Keppen said. 

The students have started seedlings at the campus farm, and this spring they expect to break ground on the rain garden. Soon, an environmentally unsound space will be brimming with witch hazel, swamp milkweed and wild senna, plants that offer as much to the ecosystem as they do the aesthetics of the landscape. A bothersome eyesore will become a sustainable and serene part of Ursinus—and a testament to the contributions students are already making to the world around them. 

“They’re ready to run with their ideas,” Finney said, “and build solutions.”

taking root dirt photo

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