Open-air classroom brings ecology to the public in Louisiana | Way of life

LAFAYETTE, Louisiana – Like the deep roots of native plants studied there, much of the University of Louisiana’s value at the Lafayette Ecology Center is hidden deep below the surface.

The roots of switchgrass, native to the Cajun prairie, are known to grow up to 7 feet deep in the soil of southern Louisiana, making it an excellent candidate for coastal erosion control.

The center provides resources for research, education, and community activities in ecology and environmental biology, but you may never know unless you visit the 50-acre meadow plot in Carencro.

This site includes a large greenhouse, which was just rebuilt after Hurricane Delta, and a building for classrooms, offices and a refrigerated seed storage area. The fields are home to 70 species of rare native plants like switchgrass, barbon, and a type of ash sunflower called Cajun Sunrise.

Visitors, whether university researchers or elementary school students, can pick a leaf from a mountain white mint plant to smell and taste it for themselves. There are flowers covered with tiny bags to prevent cross-pollination, so graduate students can observe what happens when a single insect pollinates a flower.

Rows of blue water tanks hold tiny mosquitoes for a teacher to study and compare their evolution. And a block of wetland plants serves as seed production and harvest for future restoration projects.

The place is ripe for research on super pollinators, exclusion of rains, ecosystem changes and coastal erosion, said operations director Andre ‘Daugereaux.

Daugereaux, who has run the center since 2009, said there are currently probably 12 to 18 graduate students and five or six professors conducting research on site. The center also generally hosts private groups with similar missions, such as the Cajun Prairie Habitat Society or the Acadiana Native Plant Project.

Blaine Novak Pilch is a doctoral student studying how bees respond to the presence of the green lynx spider and how their response influences the Cajun prairie plant community.

To investigate this, he has 40 plots at the ecological center, each with 10 different native species to which he applies treatments, collects seeds and observes the behavior of pollinators. He said the center is of crucial importance for his work and his field of study.

“In ecology, having experiments that mimic nature in a way that cannot be done in a laboratory but can be replicated in a way that would be difficult to do in a natural ecosystem is extremely useful for understanding ecosystems,” Pilch said. “This applies even more to rarer ecosystems, such as the Cajun prairie of which only about 250 acres remain, and experimentation is limited.”

Another important research topic at the Ecological Center is erosion, and this is at the heart of a new Ecological Center project – an outdoor classroom for learning and research on erosion management. by stormwater runoff, native grasses and plants, bees and other pollinators and soil quality.

The work, which begins this semester, is an interdisciplinary effort led by the UL Lafayette Ecological Center and its Sustainability Office to plant more native flowers and herbs on 4 acres on either side of the Coulee Mine, the one of the most important drainage canals in Lafayette.

Student volunteers will also help plant along a section of the waterway that cuts through University Common behind Blackham Coliseum.

A place to come to learn about native plants This will lead to an outdoor Cajun grassland habitat and classroom project, a place where researchers, students and community representatives can learn more about the value ecological of native flowers and herbs, the university recently announced.

“(With this classroom) everyone can see and hopefully understand what’s going on there,” Daugereaux said. “You have to see it to understand it. “

One thing visitors will see are the extensive root systems of native plants, which provide channels through the soil for water to seep in and replenish what is used by cities, residents, and farmers.

This can be done through a plexiglass wall that sinks deep into the ground and exposes the roots, which is just an idea to discuss with students at the School of Architecture and Design who will help to design and build the outdoor classroom.

“The idea is to have an outdoor seating area similar to a plaza without walls or roof – a real outdoor classroom where students, faculty members and the public can meet while they are working on. projects, ”Vanicor said.

They will also learn how these plants improve soil health over time, store carbon, attract pollinators and provide food for migrating birds, not to mention the impact plants have on erosion, Daugereaux said.

“This is one of the most important elements of the project, as the fibrous and expansive root systems of native plants hold the soil together, reducing erosion from stormwater runoff,” said Gretchen LaCombe Vanicor, director of the University Sustainability Office. “They slow down the drainage of water, which reduces flooding, and also filter out contaminants.”

Daugereaux recommended planting switchgrass, which grows from the Gulf Coast through Louisiana and beyond.

“It is extraordinarily good at sending out deep roots and keeping the soil in place,” he said.

They will also plant the Little Blue Stem, a dominant prairie grass that once covered 2.5 million acres of Louisiana, along the flow and in the outdoor classroom. Native plants like these and others are able to adapt to changes in the ecosystem, as they have been adapting for years, Daugereaux explained.

“They have been here for 10,000 to 50,000 years,” he said. “The prairie plants, they’ve adapted to whatever this state can throw at them – hurricanes, winter storms. And they are perennial, so they last.

A Project That Brings Colleges Together The Cast Along initiative recently received a nudge from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation, which provided $ 7,500 to allow the Ecological Center to hire an undergraduate research student to grow seeds. of native plants and increase production.

The support will also provide supplies and labor for planting, growing, and covering the cost of trucking compost for fertilizer from UL Lafayette’s experimental farm near Cade, which is produced as part of the university’s zero waste initiative.

The creation of urban meadows on campus is an initiative of the university’s strategic sustainability plan and one that aligns with the Office of Sustainability’s stormwater management master plan. Such areas reduce the need to mow, provide habitat for bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinators, and help reduce stormwater runoff, a statement said.

Other plans for the outdoor classroom project include installing hydrological sensors at the site, which will allow researchers to analyze soil over long periods of time for water quality, filtration capacity. and carbon levels, depending on the university.

Students at the College of Engineering and the Louisiana Watershed Flood Center will be able to study flood control, while students at Ray P. Authement College of Sciences will be able to examine soil quality, botany, and insect and bird populations. .

In addition to teaching, faculty research and student academic projects, research collected on the site will be shared with public officials and water management professionals “to inform dialogue and decisions. communities, including on the implementation of flood mitigation methods, ”Vanicor explained.

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