Summer flora class identifies plant species in Greater Chicago Area, Wisconsin

Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies Glenn Adelson and his students are compiling information about 175 plant species in the area for a web site they hope will be useful to the public.

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Glenn Adelson believes the environment of learning is pivotal, so it is typical of him to bring his students outside of the classroom — and even outside of the state — “to study the diversity of life in a diversity of ways.”

“Once you go outside, you’ve multiplied your options by a thousandfold,” Adelson said of his preferred teaching backdrop, the forest flora of the east and the prairie flora of the west, which come together in the Chicago area and make for dream-like conditions for his field work.

Over the weekend, Adelson and his students in the class Summer Flora of the Western Great Lakes traveled to northern Wisconsin along the south shore of Lake Superior to camp and study plant species. The trip was their third to Wisconsin, including a stop near the Door Peninsula. They also have taken day trips to local sites, such as the Morton Arboretum.

By the end of the course, students will have learned to identify upward of 175 species of wildflowers, grasses, trees, shrubs, and other plants and the characteristics of nearly 20 plant families in the greater Chicago area and eastern Wisconsin.

The class is about more than field trips, though. Adelson offers depth to his students’ experiences by requiring them to “make the invisible visible.” Each student must compile and document their findings about three species they encounter on a still-in-progress web site, which Adelson hopes the public and visitors of, say, the College’s Shooting Star Savannah restoration area will utilize. Each page describes physical and ecological characteristics of a species and contains photographs, some student-taken, and maybe an educational video.

The concept of visibility fascinates Adelson. Evidence is in the name of some of the courses he teaches, such as Endangered Species and Endangered Languages. He experienced a call to action when he taught Environmental Connections Between Chicago and New Orleans, and he and his students studied the loss of land of Louisiana’s coast due to both natural and unnatural causes: rising sea levels, a natural fault line at the end of the Mississippi, and an Army Corps of Engineers navigation project involving the installation of oil pipes. This is happening, yet no one sees it, Adelson said.

“It’s invisible to the whole world. I thought to myself, ‘This is stuff people need to know. The world needs to know. This is the future,’” he said.

The web site is one way Adelson is emphasizing the idea of invisibility to his students, and one way they, together, are working toward making at least local species of plants more visible to the public.