Students team up to provide WCU with its first campus tree map

Senior Kirk Gardner has been collecting measurements, diameters, height and identifications for trees on WCU’s main campus.

Initially, Diane Styers merely envisioned giving Western Carolina University its first campus tree map to be used as an educational and community awareness tool.

Little did the natural resource conservation and management assistant professor realize that it would grow into a multidisciplinary project that included students from NRCM, environmental science, computer information systems, graphic design and possibly photography.

“We’re calling it a STEAM project – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math,” joked Styers, who also teaches geography courses. “It’s been a great opportunity, not just for me, but for the students.”

In the spring of 2016, Styers submitted a proposal to the Sustainable Energy Initiative to fund a three-phased project that would provide WCU with a campus tree map on which every tree on the main campus would be located, identified with a number, and then shown with detailed information.

CIS students have been working on a mobile application as part of their Capstone course. The app is being designed to show the user’s location on campus and the trees around them. Clicking on a tree will provide information about that particular tree. There also will be a list of types of tree that one can click on to find the tree’s location on campus.

“I just think it’s a cool idea,” said CIS professor Dan Clapper. “From the technology side, it just seems like a really nice thing to combine in a really interesting application.”

Senior Isaac Hayes has helped identify 2,048 trees on WCU’s campus.

Senior environmental science major Isaac Hayes of Murphy is one of two students who have been working on the map. After going through several software programs to find the one best suitable for the project, Hayes is currently in the process of placing points on all of the trees on campus.

“I’m getting a point placed on each one and those will be what’s used to link the geographical location of the data to the tree within the map,” Hayes said. “It’s been fun.”

Hayes and classmate Alex Percival began the project in the fall of 2016. For now, the project is excluding the densely forested areas of campus. They have currently identified 2,048 trees. Once completed, Hayes said there will probably be about 2,500 mapped trees. If they were to include the dense areas, that number would likely top 3,000, he said.

Kirk Gardner, a senior NRCM major from Swannanoa, has been charged with the task of measuring each tree for its diameter of breast height, which helps determine the tree’s volume. Gardner spends a couple of hours each Wednesday morning measuring trees, collecting their diameter, height and identification. He averages between 50-80 trees a week.

“It’s not too bad,” Gardner said. “It doesn’t take a lot of time. The biggest one so far has been about 32 inches in diameter. That’s a pretty good size. I’ve still got a lot to go.”

Adrian Dunham, a senior CIS major from Asheville, has done most of the development work for the app and how it will function.

“It’s been challenging learning a completely new type of language, along with developing for a phone, because everything will work on a computer and then you put it on a phone and it doesn’t work and you really can’t see the errors,” Dunham said.

Graphic design students will be the next group to join the project. Associate professor Mary Anna LaFratta’s “Graphic Design I” students, who are mostly second semester sophomores, will design the icon and the startup screen for the app. They also will provide silhouettes of 36 tree species.

LaFratta’s class will begin working on the project after spring break and have it completed by the end of the semester.

“They are very excited about the opportunity to work on an applied project,” LaFratta said about her students. “I’m thrilled I can get my graphic designers out of the computer lab and outdoors to start studying the trees and some of the natural beauty on campus. I’m actually going to send a few of them out to look at trees and draw them. We’re always trying to push our students to draw from direct observation.”

Styers said discussions have included the possibility of having some photography faculty and students take photos for the app of campus trees rather than just having stock photos of trees.

There are several byproducts that will result from providing a campus tree map, Styers said. It will be beneficial to the university’s arborist, Martin Noone, who plans to use it as an inventory database, she said. The map will allow him to keep track of certain maintenance practices that were applied to the trees, such as root or branch pruning, or if grounds workers applied herbicide or pesticide spray.

Styers said biology associate professor Kathy Mathews and Laura DeWald, director of the environmental science program, have toyed around with having a campus tree walk. Something like that could be implemented into the app, Styers said.

Once there is quantifiable information about the trees, Styers said it will be put into i-Tree Eco software that will estimate ecosystem services and structural characteristics of the trees. It will determine such things as how much carbon is being stored and sequestered, how much pollution is being removed and the effects of trees on building energy use. That information can be used for WCU’s application to gain Tree Campus USA certification, Styers said.

Styers said a beta version of the map is scheduled to be launched at WCU’s Earth Day celebration on April 20, although the project will not be completed.

“We don’t expect to be completely finished because we probably won’t have the photos of the trees with their leaves on them until after summer is over,” she said. “Most of the components should be there, even if it’s not the full list of the species for campus. We’ll continue to refine that until it’s the way we want it.”

For more information on the campus tree map project, contact Styers at 828-227-3819 or