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University laying the groundwork for outdoor ‘urban prairie’ classroom

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The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is sowing the seeds for an outdoor classroom for learning and research about storm water runoff erosion management, native grasses and plants, bees and other pollinators, and soil quality.

That starts this semester with an interdisciplinary effort to plant more native flowers and grasses on 4 acres on each side of Coulee Mine led by UL Lafayette’s Ecology Center and its Office of Sustainability. The planting will be done with help from student volunteers along a section of the waterway that bisects University Common behind Blackham Coliseum.

The work will lay the foundation for the planned Cajun Prairie Habitat and Outdoor Classroom, a place where researchers, students and community officials can learn about, for starters, the ecological value of native flowers and grasses.

“That’s one of the most important components of the project, because native plants’ expansive, fibrous root systems hold soil, reducing erosion caused by storm water runoff. They slow water drainage, which reduces flooding, and also filter contaminants,” explained Gretchen LaCombe Vanicor, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability.

The planting of native grasses and flowers such as switchgrass and Louisiana bluestar along the coulee began about two years ago, she added. The initiative recently received a boost from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation, whose overall support of higher education is focused on improving literacy rates, expanding access to STEM programs and workforce development, and advancing equity and inclusion.

“The Foundation provided $7,500 that will enable the University’s Ecology Center in Carencro to hire an undergraduate student researcher who will propagate and grow seeds for a variety of native plants indigenous to southwest Louisiana that will enable us to increase production greatly,” Vanicor explained.

The support will also provide supplies and labor for planting, cultivation and cover the cost of trucking in compost for fertilizer from UL Lafayette’s Experimental Farm near Cade, La., that’s produced as part of the University’s zero waste initiative.

Going forward, students performing community service with University’s AmeriCorps program and the Office of First-Year Experience’s the Big Event will maintain the “urban prairie” along the coulee.

Creating urban prairies on campus is an initiative of the University’s Sustainability Strategic Plan and one that aligns with the Office of Sustainability’s storm water management master plan. Such areas reduce the need for mowing, provide habitat for bees, bird, butterflies and other pollinators, and help reduce storm water runoff. 

The planned Cajun Prairie Habitat and Outdoor Classroom will provide learning opportunities for students from many colleges and disciplines. That includes, for example, students from the School of Architecture and Design, who will help design and build it.

“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 projects,” Vanicor said. 

Other plans call for installation of hydrological sensors at the site, which will enable researchers to analyze soil over long periods for water quality, filtration capacity and carbon levels. Students from the College of Engineering and the Louisiana Watershed Center will be able to study flood control, while students from the 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 gathered at the site will be shared with public officials and water management professionals, Vanicor explained, “to inform community dialogue and decisions, including about implementing flood mitigation methods.”

Photo: UL Lafayette is planting the seeds for an outdoor classroom. The first step will be blanketing four acres along Coulee Mine with native plants, a campus urban prairie initiative supported by the CenterPoint Energy Foundation. Pictured, from left, are: Francisca Comeaux and Jeff Pike, CenterPoint Energy; Gretchen LaCombe Vanicor, UL Lafayette Office of Sustainability; Matt Smith, CenterPoint Energy; Andre Daugereaux, UL Lafayette Ecology Center; and Lisa Capone, UL Lafayette Office of Development.

 

 

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