The course not only helps shape the careers of design students, but uses the Arboretum in a new way. Friedman said he hopes that years from now the collaboration will successfully reflect, through the designers’ work, personal and deep relationships with plants that began at the park.
The class is also specifically geared to both master’s in design students (M.Des.) in the risk and resilience concentration and students in the Department of Landscape Architecture. As a collaboration, it grew in part from the way Elkin’s interests resonated with Friedman’s scientific studies.
The Arboretum’s living collection is an important teaching tool for Elkin. For five years, she brought students from her introduction to ecology class to the Arboretum, and that ignited her desire to create the field methods course.
“We walked, and I showed them the real thing, instead of them just using a Google image,” she said. “Students can’t just google the generic idea of a maple. There is a world-renowned maple collection right here, it’s amazing. They are alive and changing like we are. You can experience more than 60 species of maples in the world any time of year.”
One day each week during the fall term, students went with Elkin and Friedman into the Arboretum and examined the habitat. Discussions and experiments centered on research and theory both in the field and in on-site classrooms and laboratories. Arboretum staff, including keeper of the living collections Michael Dosmann, propagation manager Tiffany Enzenbacher, horticulture manager Andrew Gapinski, and horticulturalist Conor Guidarelli, also shared their expertise.
Elkin said that for students raised in a technological age, the act of seeing, touching, and even smelling plants can be life-changing.
“We are out on the grounds excavating a root system of a tree and they’re just mesmerized,” Friedman said. “Many of them have never held a root in their hand, never looked at a flower very carefully, never even thought about tree architecture the study of plant form. We’re opening their eyes.”
Students were also encouraged to maintain abstract ideas by looking at what appear to be chaotic elements of nature — such as intertwined root systems through which members of the same species communicate, what instructors referred to as a “perfection of complexity.”
Pablo Escudero took the class in 2017 and was so inspired by the interdisciplinary interests that he became Elkin’s research assistant. Last fall, he was the teaching fellow.
“What I’ve been trying to ask ever since I took the course is, what would design look like if we acknowledge the importance that plants play in the making of our environment?” he said. “When a class allows you to ask questions that shake disciplinary foundations, that means it is relevant.”
The other strength was moving the class from the GSD to the Arboretum, Escudero said.
“The setting is very relevant to the learning experience,” he said. “It is the only class I have taken at the GSD that has this type of collaboration. It’s awesome, it’s completely outside of the world of GSD and campus, it’s amazing to be out there.”