Students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette will soon be able to take their learning outside of the traditional classroom setting by building an innovative outdoor classroom to study Louisiana’s Cajun Prairie, according to a news release from the school.
The new classroom is just one of two new environmental changes happening at the University as part of their Sustainability Strategic Plan, an initiative that encourages the creation of urban prairie environments on ULL’s campus. The project to cultivate the planned Cajun Prairie Habitat aligns with the Office of Sustainability’s master plan for stormwater management. By installing more urban prairies instead of other types of landscaping systems and structures, ULL will reduce the need for mowing, help to reduce stormwater runoff, and provide a habitat for bees, birds, butterflies, and other pollinators.
Once the urban prairie is installed on the campus, it will also serve as an outdoor classroom from which students can conduct research and learn about stormwater runoff erosion management, native grasses and plants, bees and other pollinators, and soil quality. Also, in addition to being used by students directly involved in STEM courses and research studies, the outdoor environment will also serve as a type of gathering spot for all types of learning.
Gretchen LaCombe Vanicor, the director of the University’s Office of Sustainability said of the layout, “the idea is to have a plaza-like outdoor seating area with no walls or roofing – a true outdoor classroom where students, faculty members, and the public can meet while they are working on the project.”
This vision of a school-wide classroom isn’t just a concept that exists in the completion of the Cajun Prairie Habitat and Outdoor Classroom, but the interdisciplinary aspects of the project’s inception, planning, construction, and much more will provide learning opportunities for students from many colleges and disciplines.
The work to bring this project to life will begin this fall semester with an interdisciplinary effort to plant more native flowers and grasses along the 4 acres on either side of Coulee Mine, a stream that bisects University Common behind Blackham Coliseum. The planting of more native fauna along this section of the waterway will be led by UL Lafayette’s Ecology Center and its Office of Sustainability. This work will lay the foundation for what will become of the urban prairie environment, as it allows for students, community officials, faculty members, and researchers to gather and learn about the ecological value of native flowers and grasses in an environment where they actually exist.
Vanicor went on to highlight this stage as “one of the most important components of the project, because native plants’ expansive, fibrous root systems hold soil, reducing erosion caused by stormwater runoff. They slow water drainage, which reduces flooding, and also filters contaminants.”
Outside of the Ecology Center leading the installation and planting of the prairie, other ULL schools are collaborating to bring the project to life. For example, students who will help design and build the outdoor classroom will be from the School of Architecture and Design. Then, after it’s completed, students partaking in community service with the University’s AmeriCorps program and the Office of First-Year Experience’s ‘Big Event’ will coordinate the maintenance of the urban prairie along the coulee.
According to Vanicor, any findings and research gathered at the future site will be shared with public officials and water management professionals in an effort “to inform community dialogue and decisions, including about implementing flood mitigation methods.”
So while it’s encouraging for UL Lafayette to have so many students from several of the University’s departments and schools coming together to bring the academic and ecological dream of the Cajun Prairie Habitat and Outdoor Classroom to life, the Louisiana community outside of the school will also be able to benefit from the research conducted in the urban prairie as well.
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