Lindens and pines and burs — oh my! Whether you’re in Gilmour Hall, the hospital, or across Cootes in the Campus Services Building, a quick peek out of the nearest window will no doubt showcase a handful of the many different tree species that call McMaster University home.
Inspired by that, the Arts & Science Program’s Trees Inquiry course explores the different trees on campus and dives into their significance through a number of different disciplines and perspectives. Students in the course are tasked with writing portraits — detailed descriptions drawing on history, science, geography, cultural significance, and environmental importance — of each species and presenting their findings to their peers.
While the course typically culminates with a principal research project, this year was a little bit different. Acknowledging the comprehensive nature of the student-made portraits, Dr. Alison McQueen suggested that, using the information already gathered, the class work together to create a public info resource in lieu of their final project. The result: Trees@Mac, an interactive website designed to maintain accessible information about the wealth and diversity of trees on McMaster University’s campus.
“The smaller class size really enabled us to do something like this,” McQueen says. “Instead of doing a typical final research paper, we all agreed that working together on something like this would be more worthwhile. We each brought different skill sets to the table — it was a really collaborative effort.”
While some students brought web-savviness to the group and others brought project management skills, McQueen says her background in art history played a role in identifying some of the different species.
“As an art historian, my skills allow me to identify the work of a particular artist,” she explains. “Those same visual skills allow me to differentiate between the many tree species on campus. This way of thinking also allows me to place each tree in its proper context environmentally, scientifically, medically, historically, and culturally.”
As such, the website combines that type of information and applies it to more than 30 different species of trees, while also displaying each tree’s exact coordinates on a map of the university’s campus. In seconds, you can locate the nearest Chinese Magnolia Tree, view a photo of it, and learn about its significance.
“Learning about the trees on campus was a very hands-on process that involved a lot of exploring, discovery, and inquiry,” says Ian McIntosh, a Level III Arts & Science student who wrote several of the portraits for the website. “I found it especially interesting because not only were we learning about particular types of trees or even trees in general, but it also allowed me to look at the campus with a new perspective, to appreciate different things about it, and to notice things I hadn’t before.”
McQueen hopes that, like McIntosh, McMaster students, staff, and faculty members leverage the tool to learn more about the trees that they study under, work beside, and walk past every day.
“I hope that people start to notice more of the trees around campus and use this tool as a means to learn more about them,” she says. “People take for granted the bounty of beauty that we have here at McMaster, but it really is an arboretum. This website invites people to engage with that beauty a little bit more — it supports learning and provides knowledge, which, as a university, is what we’re all about.”
McQueen says the plan is to keep the site updated as the campus landscape continues to evolve and even suggests that it may someday have a companion app or physical supplements like plaques, signs, or maps around campus. However it plays out, both McQueen and the students who worked on it hope that Trees@Mac will be a useful resource for many years to come.
Also appeared in:
• The McMaster Daily News
• The McMaster Update
• The Hamilton Spectator (front page, 9 Aug).