Trees are the largest organisms students usually encounter in their daily lives. However, most are unaware of the critical roles trees play in their local environments. As critical components of green infrastructure, trees improve air quality, mitigate storm-water runoff, and provide food and habitat for other organisms. Using the cross-platform and open-source software Bioimages Collection Manager (BCM), we created an online interactive arboretum guide for a university campus arboretum. Faculty, students, and visitors can scan tree tags with their mobile devices and access biological metadata, participate in self-guided tree tours, and learn about the ecology and ethnobotany of individual tree species. Importantly, this approach may be replicated for other campuses, school yards, and additional green spaces.

Introduction

The majority of U.S. citizens live in urban areas (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). In addition to degrading and diminishing natural habitats (Marzluff, 2001), urban areas may also isolate people from natural systems, increase the separation they feel from natural environments, and reduce the quality and quantity of human interactions with nature (Turner et al., 2004; Lin et al., 2014). Although individual knowledge of our natural surroundings is decreasing (Atran et al., 2004), direct experience with natural environments (i.e., largely natural and without design or planning) and seminatural environments (i.e., areas that have been modified but still retain many natural features) has been widely noted as an important factor affecting individual ecological knowledge levels (Eaton, 1998; Preston & Griffiths, 2004; Pilgrim et al., 2007; Cooper, 2008; Wagner, 2008; Parker, 2009).

Importantly, national support for improving ecological knowledge levels among K–16 students is found in both the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) and the Vision and Change report (AAAS, 2011). Although the literature offers clear evidence that experience with natural and seminatural areas has a positive impact on ecological literacy, urban areas offer limited opportunities for residents to interact with nature. However, urban areas do have green spaces that provide opportunities for people to interact with local natural and seminatural environments. Trees are a critical component of these green spaces and are the largest organisms that most individuals encounter on a daily basis. However, many are unaware of the important role of trees in their local environments (Camacho-Cervantes et al., 2014). Trees improve air quality, mitigate storm-water runoff, and provide food and habitat for other organisms (Nowak et al., 2006; Gómez-Baggethun & Barton, 2013). Yet urban trees and the green spaces they inhabit are underutilized as educational tools, and few resources exist that specifically aim to increase ecological literacy. By utilizing BCM to develop an interactive online arboretum guide, our goal is to teach students about the natural world using local urban green spaces.

Enhancing Traditional Arboreta for Campuses & Communities

To increase ecological literacy, many communities and campuses have developed arboreta to enhance understanding and appreciation of trees. Biology teachers often use campus arboreta as a source for material to help students study plant morphology or to teach students about tree identification (Levy & McDowell, 2004). Common features of arboreta include passive elements such as signage identifying individual tree specimens, available pamphlets or maps illustrating the location of trees, and brief descriptions of tree characteristics (e.g., morphology, native status). Unfortunately, maps and pamphlets may become easily outdated as a result of tree loss or campus construction. Additionally, signage for tree specimens often offers limited information. However, the overwhelming majority of visitors to arboreta have immediate access to wirelessly connected smart devices. These mobile devices are indispensable tools of modern life that facilitate communication, collaboration, sharing, and learning and that also minimize locational and temporal restraints (Looi et al., 2011). Smart devices also have the potential to provide a context for learning, while making learning more learner-centered and personalized (Crompton, 2014).

In an effort to make an existing campus arboretum more accessible and relevant for faculty, students, and visitors, a series of tree tours and an interactive online guide were created using the open-source and cross-platform software Bioimages Collection Manager (BCM; Polzin, 2014). Bioimages is a group of online tools for learning about ecoregions and plants, an assemblage of images of living organisms, and an illustration of recommended practices for biodiversity informatics (Baskauf, 2015; homepage: http://bioimages.vanderbilt.edu/), originally conceived as a collaborative tool. Permission to use the software and contribute to Bioimages can be sought by contacting Bioimages developer Steve Baskauf at Vanderbilt University. Images of the arboretum tree specimens, associated metadata, and in-depth information from the Plants Database of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS, 2018) were collected and submitted by the researchers to the Bioimages database developer for review. Using the BCM software, web pages were created for each tree specimen in the campus arboretum. Next, Quick Response (QR) codes were created and attached to small tree tags in the arboretum to allow users to access the tree web pages. Finally, several tree pages for individual arboretum specimens were linked together to form three separate self-guided tree tours.

Developing the Interactive Online Guide for the Arboretum

The tree tour project was designed to enhance access to the 34 tree specimens in the preexisting Middle Tennessee State University Campus Arboretum, which received Level 1 Certified Arboretum Status from the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council in 2015 (TUFC, 2018). Over 100 species of trees can be found on the approximately 500-acre campus, 36 of which are included in the campus arboretum. One approach to developing an interactive online arboretum might involve developing a downloadable application as the user interface. Potential drawbacks for this approach include securing continuing funding and technical support. However, an alternative approach (adopted for the current project) could incorporate the use of the BCM software developed for use with the Bioimages database. Importantly, metadata collected using BCM adhere to recommended practices for biodiversity informatics developed by the Taxonomic Databases Working Group (TDWG, 2018). BCM uses terms from the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI, 2012), the Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG, 2018), and the Darwin-SW Ontology (Polzin, 2014; Baskauf & Webb, 2016). The metadata associated with each organism and its images also provide information on taxonomic identity, time, and location. Additionally, the data submitted using BCM are distributed to biodiversity aggregators such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (https://www.gbif.org/) and the Encyclopedia of Life (http://eol.org/).

After downloading the BCM software and registering as a contributor to the Bioimages database, more than 1,000 images of the 34 tree specimens in the campus arboretum were taken using a mobile phone. To facilitate a clear taxonomic identification, the Bioimages database requires that all photos displayed on the web page for the organism are photos of that particular specimen. Therefore, multiple photos were taken of each tree's bark, leaves, inflorescence, fruit and/or seed, and the whole tree. Photos were also taken at different times of the year to capture the tree specimens during different seasons. Importantly, as part of the data entry process, contributors must also list the publication or resource used for identification of the specimen.

Next, the images were submitted to the Biomages database using the BCM software. The photos for each organism were then linked, allowing the BCM software to generate web pages for each of the 34 individual tree specimens in the arboretum. Images from the web page for the oldest documented specimen in the campus arboretum, a tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), can be seen in Figure 1. Having been previously identified, taxonomic information for each tree was added, along with geospatial data embedded in the photos at the time they were taken by the mobile phone. In addition, detailed information from the Plants Database (USDA NRCS 2018) – including species descriptions, habitat, distribution, adaptation, environmental concerns, and historical and commercial uses – was added to the web pages for each of the tree specimens in the arboretum.

Figure 1.

Online arboretum images for a specimen of Liriodendron tulipifera.

Figure 1.

Online arboretum images for a specimen of Liriodendron tulipifera.

Using the BCM software, 25 tree specimens from the arboretum were then selected for inclusion in three separate self-guided tree tours that linked designated tree web pages and guided users along prearranged routes in the campus arboretum. To make the tree pages accessible to users exploring the arboretum, QR codes were generated for each tree web page using the website https://www.the-qrcode-generator.com/. QR codes for each tree's web page were then printed on weatherproof vinyl stickers (available at https://www.sheetlabels.com) and attached to individual tree specimen tags (see Figure 2). Scanning the QR code attached to the tree tag with a mobile phone or tablet allowed users to access individual tree websites, the tree tours, and the larger Bioimages database.

Figure 2.

A tree tag with a QR code attached.

Figure 2.

A tree tag with a QR code attached.

Another useful feature of the BCM software is related to the geospatial data associated with the images imported into the Bioimages database. The software uses an average of all geospatial coordinates associated with the tree specimen to determine the location of the organism. In addition, the software enables users to locate themselves in relation to the trees in the campus arboretum in real time. For example, a student can scan a tree's QR code and access information on its web page. The student can then use the tree-tour navigation buttons on each web page to navigate to the next tree or the previous tree on the tour or to access the arboretum's homepage (see Figure 3). Users can then navigate to the next tree in the tour by pressing the Find Me! button on that tree's web page, which shows the location of the tree and the real-time location of the student as they navigate toward the tree (see Figure 4).

Figure 3.

Screenshot illustrating the Tree Tour navigation buttons.

Figure 3.

Screenshot illustrating the Tree Tour navigation buttons.

Figure 4.

Screenshot showing the Find Me! button, tree location, and student location on a web page for Liriodendron tulipifera.

Figure 4.

Screenshot showing the Find Me! button, tree location, and student location on a web page for Liriodendron tulipifera.

Broader Impact

Notably, the approach applied to develop this interactive online guide for a campus arboretum can easily be adapted for use on other campuses, parks, or greenways. For example, a tree tour designed to enhance student ecological literacy levels could be constructed using several trees found on your school campus. As students make their way along the tour, they can scan each tree to access its images and information to help answer questions on an accompanying activity guide. Questions on the guide may be designed to enhance important biological concepts such as the flow of matter and energy, photosynthesis, and cellular respiration. An example of such an activity guide can be seen in Figure 5.

Figure 5.

Example of a “Tree Tour Activity Guide.”

Figure 5.

Example of a “Tree Tour Activity Guide.”

Another important feature of the interactive online arboretum developed for this study is the inclusion of information from the Plants Database (USDA NRCS 2018) – species descriptions, ecology, distribution, habitat, adaptation, commercial and historical uses, and environmental concerns – on the web page for each tree specimen. This approach enables the development of a wide range of alternative applications for a variety of subjects. For example, one of the trees in the arboretum is a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). Information on this tree's web page includes details about its mutualistic relationship with its beetle and hummingbird pollinators, its role as an important food plant for birds and small mammals, and its value as a larval food plant for lepidopterans (e.g., tiger swallowtail, Palamedes swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, and sweetbay silkmoth). Hence, a variety of course materials could be constructed to provide students with opportunities to explore such topics as pollinator interactions, energy transfer in ecosystems, and evolutionary relationships. For instance, students could participate in a scavenger hunt for tree species that are valuable resources for migratory songbirds. Similar information is included on the web pages for all tree species in the arboretum, which offers a broad range of possibilities for developing activities to be used in a variety of content areas.

Importantly, this model also takes advantage of readily accessible local environments and commonly available tools (smart devices) to provide opportunities that may enhance individual ecological knowledge. When asked about their experiences with the online guide and the tree tours, several students made statements offering preliminary support for this approach. For instance, a student in an upper-division life science course for preservice elementary teachers noted its usefulness and novelty. She stated, “The whole tree tour thing helped me and the class in general … and it's on your phone. Like, that's neat.” It also creates an easily updated and interactive campus resource for faculty, students, and visitors that reduces constraints associated with technology development and maintenance (e.g., app development and updating) while distributing biological metadata to the global research community. Perhaps most importantly, it may also help individuals connect with the giants in our midst and appreciate the critical roles they play in our environment.

The authors thank Steve Baskauf at Vanderbilt University for his important contributions to this project. Special thanks are also given to the reviewers of this manuscript for their valuable feedback.

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