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Students dig into ecology in new campus greenhouse

Advancement Oct 2, 2020
A man and a woman plant seeds in pots in a greenhouse
A man and a woman plant seeds in pots in a greenhouse

KOKOMO, Ind. — Justice Wilburn is in his element in Indiana University Kokomo’s new greenhouse.

With a sustainability and earth sciences minor, he prefers to learn by doing and being outside.

“It’s the best way to learn, rather than by being lectured at,” the Kokomo resident said. “It’d rather be getting my hands dirty.”

Wilburn, along with his classmates in T.J. Sullivan’s ecology class, are digging into their lesson in plant growth, using the recently opened greenhouse as their laboratory.

Two at a time, students scoop potting soil into small orange pots, then add corn, peas, or sunflower seeds — just one type in some pots, two in others, and all three in additional pots – cover them up and water them and wait to see the results.

It’s a classic experiment, looking at how competition affects plant growth, and the impact of competing with a plant of the same species versus one from another species.

“We’ve never been able to do this experiment this way because we didn’t have the appropriate space,” said Sullivan, associate professor of biology and molecular ecology. “We’ve attempted it with tiny plants, because that’s what we had room for in the past. Now we can do it with corn, sunflowers, and peas. We know theoretically what should happen, but since we’ve never done it here, we shall see.”

Previously, he created a makeshift greenhouse in his lab, but now has a 1,500 square-foot greenhouse, with plenty of space available.

“We would have to take everyone outside to fill their pots, then bring those inside and put them on a shelving unit in the window,” he said.

Bret Hisey, a senior from Macy, majoring in biological and physical sciences and secondary education, is happy to have the opportunity to work in the greenhouse before he graduates in December.

“It should have a pretty interesting impact on the future of lab classes here,” Hisey said. “I think it’s great that future students will get a chance to have new experiences because we have a greenhouse.”

Rowan Hannah, from Alexandria, is considering the possibilities when she does her independent research project for biological and physical sciences.

“Having this available gives me more options to choose from,” she said. “It offers more hands-on learning opportunities.”

For Rahael Takwe, from Cameroon, it was her first time working in a greenhouse.

“I think it is a good idea,” she said. “It’s going to help us study ecology, and carry out experiments.”

Sullivan’s class is the first to use the greenhouse, located between Hunt Hall and the Kelley House. It could also be used by faculty for research and for students in nutrition, hospitality and tourism, earth sciences, and sustainability programs. There’s potential for it to aid in providing fresh produce for the campus food pantry.

Having a greenhouse makes plant samples more readily available to biology students and could allow the campus to add classes such as botany. These opportunities gives students a look at science-related careers in fields including biotechnology, agriculture, environmental science, medicine and health, teaching, and the pharmaceutical industry.

The greenhouse was funded by donations from two anonymous donors, along with Barb and Steve Conner and the Indiana American Water Co.

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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