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Branching Out

A class project leaves lasting impression on the village of Ada.


As Ada’s largest resident, Ohio Northern University is working to strengthen the community through outreach efforts like last fall’s inaugural Ada Civic Engagement Day, which saw ONU students volunteer to help residents with beautification projects to homes, businesses, churches and offices in town.

Now, ONU professors are creating high-impact learning opportunities within their course curricula to focus student learning in a way that also benefits the community.

Students collect data on a tree in Ada, Ohio.

Each spring, Dr. Jimmy Wilson, visiting assistant professor of geography, asks his Applied GIS (geographic information systems) class to develop a project that will provide both practical GIS experience and a benefit to someone. Previous class projects include creating 3-D models of campus buildings for use in Google’s Google Earth mapping software, and an inventory of the trees on Ohio Northern’s Campus. The most recent class took the idea of a tree inventory and opened it up to the village of Ada.

“Trees are so important to Ada. And, while this project directly benefits our students by giving them hands-on experience at building a GIS database and the local municipality by giving them this tool, in reality, it benefits us all,” says Wilson.

Indeed, the community has long valued trees for their appearance, service as barriers, inherent cooling qualities and wind reduction. This floral fondness has resulted in Ada being officially designated as one of Ohio’s Tree Cities, meaning that the National Arbor Day Foundation, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, recognize Ada’s ongoing efforts to manage its public tree resources.

The class project resulted in a digital itemized tree inventory, which gives local administrators the means to catalog tree data, map tree locations and develop an automated report with information on individual trees. It is beneficial to local administrators in assessing the worth of trees in the event of disasters, helps with landscaping and assists with planning new development.

“Trees are an important resource in our village, but we don’t always have the time and resources to inventory our street trees. These students’ work will prove to be an invaluable foundation for our street tree inventory work,” says Jim Meyer, Ada village administrator.

This November, ONU students Bethany Blakely, a senior environmental studies major from Pickerington, Ohio, and Emily Nebgen, a senior biology major from Swansea, Ill., spoke about their involvement in developing the tree inventory at the 2012 Northwest Ohio Urban Forestry Seminar at Bluffton University, hosted by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry.

Professor Jimmy Wilson attends the 2012 Northwest Ohio Urban
Forestry Seminar with students Bethany Blakely and Emily Nebgen.

They explained how students gathered and recorded data from more than 200 trees over the 16-week semester. The data included the tree variety, a physical description, visible damage or obstacles present, and measurements such as circumference and height. All information gathered was entered into a database that was linked to the final report.

Given the large number of trees in the community and the small class size, the class decided to focus on the southeast portion of Ada. So, in actuality the project is more of a pilot project to show how an inventory is done and how beneficial it can be.

“I feel that goals for the project were lofty, yet attainable. However, we simply ran out of time in the semester to complete the full scope of the project and had to acknowledge the fact that we could not count and catalog all the trees that we originally wanted to do. I don't think any of us students knew just how many trees there were in Ada!” says Nebgen.

With the pilot project complete, Ada administrators can begin using the inventory and hopefully see some real benefits, particularly economic. According to Stephanie Miller, regional urban forester for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, municipal tree inventories can affect a city’s bottom line.

“A customized, quality tree inventory is an extremely valuable tool for cities and villages. It allows leaders to make informed decisions about their community forest management regarding tree planting, care and removal. This, in turn, increases efficiency, promotes the wise use of taxpayer dollars, and allows us to reap the many socio-economic and environmental benefits of a healthy tree population,” she says.

As ONU and the village of Ada continue to work together to build a better community, expect to see more examples of high-impact learning that directly benefits the area.

“This project is a great example of how students really can make a difference in their community,” says Miller.