Monday, October 7, 2013

Students Map Gardens Trails Using GPS

By Erika Zambello

If you've been in Duke Gardens recently, you might have noticed a group of students marching purposefully through the trails, a bright yellow apparatus clutched tightly in their hands. No, they are not looking for signs of extraterrestrial life. They are, however, using the Gardens in a unique way: creating a map as part of a GPS and Geographic Information System (GIS) assignment.

Audrey Archer, a first year Nicholas School of the Environment graduate student, and her assignment partner Emma Vaughan, a second year Nicholas School graduate student, arrived early one Thursday morning to finish mapping for their Forest Measurements course.

"The goal is to produce a map of the Blomquist trails and 30 'point' features throughout the Gardens," Archer explained in an email, point features being,"fountains, visitor center, benches, the dawn redwood trees, Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, lakes, etc."

Mapping is no easy feat. "This is a very time-intensive process," Archer wrote in an email. It took about four hours in the Gardens. "When mapping the trails, you have to collect data for multiple points along the trail to account for the curvature."

Photo by Audrey Archer
Their work extends far beyond Duke Gardens. "Back in the computer lab, we uploaded the data onto ArcPad (GIS software)," Archer wrote. "We were given aerial footage of the Gardens and input our data on top of the image. ... GPS units are not perfect, especially in places where the satellite signal can't reach our unit, which happens a lot in the Gardens because of tree canopy cover. So, you can see from our map that there is some error in our data."

The project was an integral part of the students' efforts to master GIS software, a critical skill much in demand in the environment and conservation fields when they graduate. Using Duke Gardens as their practice site gave the students an opportunity to both thoroughly explore Duke Gardens and use them as an educational resource.

"This was an awesome opportunity to explore the Gardens," Archer says. "There aren't too many classes that you can take a walk in the Gardens while simultaneously working on an assignment. An added bonus: a large portion of this class is learning how to ID trees. As you know, a lot of vegetation is labeled in the gardens, so our data collection proved to also be a great study opportunity! Talk about multi-tasking!"

Photo by Emma Vaughan
Duke Gardens staff are in the midst of their own mapping projects. In fact, staff provided the Forest Measurements students the aerial photograph they used to check their work.

"We got a base map in place using an aerial photograph," says Beth Hall, Paul J. Kramer plant collections manager. "We went through and basically drew on where paths were in the aerial photograph, and then our summer interns went through and added all the benches." Additionally, each bench on the map has a corresponding photograph for easy identification. 

Duke Gardens has mapped the paths, benches, and irrigation heads throughout the Gardens, and it has begun the long process of mapping all the plants.

"The aerial photograph is so accurate that we'll be using it to map individual trees and shrubs," Hall adds, "You can see perennials on the ground."

As these mapping projects continue, Duke Gardens will be host to a wealth of information that can be used for classes, visitors, and efforts to refine and improve management plans. Though I do not yet know how to use GIS or other mapping software, I am incredibly excited because these projects really offer more ways to get to know our Gardens.

Blogger Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment

1 comment:

  1. What a cool gig while attending grad school, Erika!! Glad we found eachother (I'm new on this). Hope all is well, and CONGRATULATIONS!!