Growing forestry knowledge across campus

Sierra McCoy sits on campus with a tree sign for the American Sycamore
Sierra McCoy, senior in forestry, worked closely with several Iowa State University departments to complete her honors project, helping students learn more about the landscape around them.

By Madelyn Ostendorf

Informational, interactive signs have popped up across Iowa State University’s campus to help educate individuals about the trees they see.

Sierra McCoy, senior in forestry, was inspired by the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus, which has signage and education woven into its landscape. The signs include QR codes and information about the surrounding trees available to any interested passersby.

"I just really loved the idea of being able to see people learn the names of the trees that they interact with on a daily basis, whether they realize it or not," McCoy said.

She is a member of the University Honors Program, and as part of the program, she is required to complete an honors project. These projects allow students to explore a new area of interest. McCoy took this opportunity to explore the feasibility of bringing tree signage to Iowa State's campus.

Billy Beck, assistant professor of natural resource ecology and management, was McCoy’s project advisor. He said McCoy was effective and hardworking while pursuing her project and inspired him to look at the campus’ trees differently.

“I always looked at them, but now I think about their history, their meaning and how they are tied to our community,” Beck said. “Even off campus, I look around at trees and think about how people relate to them and the history associated with them.”

Beck said McCoy did all of the work on her own. He helped edit content and guided her through establishing the tree signage.

“Anytime you put something like this up on campus, there's going to be a lot of people that you have to work with,” Beck said. “You're not just going to get this done in a week.

McCoy worked closely with Iowa State’s Facilities Planning and Management to ensure she picked trees that were interesting to learn about and were in locations where the signs wouldn't be in the way of events or the groundskeepers.

"I wanted to have permanent physical signage at each location, but that was not possible," McCoy said. "I made temporary signage to grab attention. They'll only stay up the rest of the semester and maybe into the spring semester."

She worked with Iowa State’s Trademark Office to figure out an appropriate template for the signage and eventually landed on the Live Green branding, the campus' sustainability initiative.

McCoy used information from her forestry classes and internships to fill in most of the signage. Documents from Parks Library Special Collections and University Archives allowed her to add some historical context. Through this, she discovered that some trees have interesting stories behind them.

"It was honestly a bit overwhelming the amount of information they have," McCoy said. "There are campus records and even historical aerial photos. There were boxes upon boxes that I was going through, and I definitely didn't get to it all."

The MyState app interface
McCoy integrated a "trees on campus" section into the MyState app.

Once the physical signs were underway, McCoy turned to the second part of her project: bringing a tree identification feature to the MyState app.

Users can select the map tool within the app to find many things on Iowa State’s campus, from buildings to art to microwaves. Now, users can scroll through the categories and locate trees on campus, sorted by species.  

  • To find the tree identification feature:  
  • Open the MyState app.  
  • Select the Map feature.  
  • Tap on the search feature.
  • Beneath the search bar, scroll through the list of categories until you find the “Trees on Campus” icon.  
  • Select the species you are interested in, and the app will drop a pin at its location.

"I worked very closely with IT on this project," McCoy said. "IT developed the category icon and worked on the software, but once it came time to place the tree markers on the map, they gave me access to make those points, add in tree information and a few fun facts."

While the physical signage is temporary, the forestry honor society Xi Sigma Pi will continue to check in on the map locations once McCoy has graduated, ensuring the project continues to thrive and educate others.

There are more than 13,000 trees within Iowa State's Ames campus, and McCoy selected 12 tree groups on the main campus to feature for her project. She hopes that bringing interest to the trees and natural landscape of campus will encourage students to learn more about them and how they are impacted by trees every day.

"Trees do so much for us," McCoy said. "They're aesthetically beautiful, we appreciate their shade, and they bring cool critters to campus. But they also play important roles in climate regulation and water filtration, and we couldn't live without trees."