Campus landscape is being mapped with GIS tech

Students on campus using GIS to map trees

Senior landscape architecture majors and FPM student employees Christy Thompson, left, and Crystal DeWulf help inventory campus trees and shrubs with geographic information system (GIS) technology. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Iowa State's canopy of 12,500 trees gives the campus a park-like feel. A tree canopy inventory -- which doesn't include ISU's arboretum, wooded areas, farms, Reiman Gardens or Veenker golf course -- is being updated using geographic information system (GIS) technology.

Chris Strawhacker, campus planner in facilities planning and management, said the digital mapping will replace an outdated campus landscape map currently available.

Ash tree threat changes landscape

ISU's preparations for an invasive and destructive beetle included removing and replacing a significant number of ash trees from the campus landscape.

"We've traditionally done our tree inventory using both an Excel spreadsheet and AutoCad [computer-aided drafting software]. The problem is that the drawing doesn't really tell you much information about the trees -- there's just a circle and a little label telling you what the tree was identified as," he said.

The landscape map divides the campus into 65 sections. Each summer, student employees updated a few sections at a time, looking for what was planted, removed or dead. Once a section of the map was updated, the students counted each species of tree and updated the inventory spreadsheet to reflect the changes.

"It worked pretty well, but it was cumbersome," Strawhacker said.

Digital solution

A few years ago, Strawhacker started looking for a better way to map the canopy and include more information about the trees. GIS was a possibility and wasn't new to FPM, which used the system for its project to establish physical addresses for more than 650 campus locations. Strawhacker also helped lead that project.

"I went to a conference and talked to an arborist from Montana who said their crew goes out with a [GIS] app on a tablet and does the updates right in the field," Strawhacker said.

So, for the past five years -- section by section -- student employees updated the old maps and entered the same information into a GIS map until all 12,500 trees were recorded.

The GIS map shows the Latin and common names of each tree, and can record known details -- for example, when it's planted, which nursery it's from and its canopy diameter, which can be updated as it grows. More specifics, such as tree health and care, can be added.

Info on the go

With GIS, the information moves with the tree. This was the case for several trees at the construction site for the Gerdin Business Building's addition that were relocated to the landscape outside Hilton Coliseum.

"Sometimes when there are new building projects, we have trees that are healthy and in great shape that we'll transplant instead of cutting down. We can just move that tree on the GIS map and all of the information will go with it," Strawhacker said.

Campus services crews help with the effort by inputting GIS information when they deliver and plant new trees and shrubs. They provide real-time updates when landscape plans are altered on site -- for example, due to utility location changes or tree substitutions sent by the nursery.

Out with the old ... almost

Strawhacker said the goal is to replace the inventory spreadsheet and 65-section map within the next couple years. For now, the GIS map is used internally only. Some faculty also have access to the GIS map for classwork that utilizes the campus landscape for learning.

What's the holdup? Shrubs. About 22,500 of them.

"We have the trees done and our focus right now is to get shrubs into the map," he said. "I'd like to get as much of that information in as we can for the most visited areas on campus."

He said many people visit campus to see unique plants they could use in their own landscaping, and he gets calls and emails from people using the old plant maps. Some are regulars who provide updates and corrections.

"They use the map to see what it is and research the plant -- whether it will grow in their yard or how big it will get," Strawhacker said. "It's a good resource for people who are interested in the campus landscape."

How ISU Extension and Outreach became a digital access trailblazer

About three years ago, ISU Extension and Outreach updated its online store where anyone can download the publications produced by extension faculty, staff and partners. For the first time, the store's website was digitally accessible, meaning it was designed so people with disabilities could use it. Screen reader software, for instance, could turn text into speech for people with low or no vision. Interactive features such as links, forms, buttons and dropdown menus could be navigated without a mouse, making them compatible with assistive input devices.

But inside the website was the store's online content, thousands of documents available to the public -- none of them built to be accessible. Neither was there a plan to make future publications accessible.

For more information

ISU Extension and Outreach developed document accessibility training available to any Iowa State employee. Self-guided courses for Microsoft Office, Adobe InDesign and Adobe Acrobat Pro are available online.

Additional resources are available on Iowa State's digital access website. To request custom training or consultation, email Cyndi Wiley at

Extension IT systems analyst Kristi Elmore asked extension store manager Chris Johnsen what he thought about revising existing publications to meet accessibility guidelines. He was immediately on board. Elmore then talked to Robin Ertz, the IT manager in extension's professional development unit, about training extension staff to make sure new documents were accessible. She was in, too.

They had no idea what they were signing up for.

"We definitely underestimated the time," Elmore said. "We just saw there was a need and decided to do something about it."

They quickly learned few U.S. organizations have taken on both mass document remediation and widespread staff training. When they talked to peer institutions, Ertz said, they often would hear a similar project was considered but halted after organizers realized how difficult it was.

"We only found a few that ventured into something even relatable to this, but nothing of the same magnitude," said Rachel Tendall, an extension digital designer and assistant brand manager who joined the team early on as a design and software expert. "We couldn't find any materials. We ended up working with a company out of Canada to run us through some trainings."

A little more than two years later, the foursome had put an estimated 3,000 hours into its eAccessibility Initiative and convinced extension leadership to hire two full-time staff to work on document remediation and training. It's a rare effort, one Iowa State's digital accessibility coordinator hopes to leverage in the university's push to make more web and digital course content accessible.

"What extension is doing is big. There are just not many other universities at all in the United States that are doing what they're doing," Cyndi Wiley said.

Unique focus

While templates for Iowa State websites are digitally accessible, site content is likely to be inaccessible without training and planning. So when Wiley consults with departments and units on how to adopt digital accessibility, she encourages them to start by ensuring a few areas -- social media or newsletters, for example -- use basics such as alternate text and video captions. Her recommendations typically focus more on changing practices than major revisions.

"Extension chose to do both. That's what's unique about it. To look at those two aspects is mind-blowing," she said. "What you find, not just here on campus, is there's a limit on time, resources and expertise. Those are the three things that get in the way of a lot of things."

It took more than a year after the first discussions before the eAccessibility team took a proposal to extension administration in late 2017. It was another year before document accessibility specialists John Robnett and Ron Nelson were hired. Meanwhile, the team developed training for extension staff, including videos and workshops offered in Ames and county offices around the state.

Wiley said she plans to incorporate some of extension's training in a faculty-focused digital accessibility course she's developing for Canvas.

"They were one of the first meetings I wanted to schedule when I arrived to campus," said Wiley, who started in her post last November.

The interest extends well beyond campus. The team has presented about the project twice at the National Extension Technology Community conferences and in a webinar for the organization. The project has drawn the attention of numerous schools considering how to make digital accessibility a higher priority.

"It's something that everyone is thinking about, but it's about how to get started," Elmore said.

Staff reaction

In designing the training curriculum, the team was careful about what they asked of staff, as the extra diligence does take more time. Yet they wanted the attentiveness to accessibility to be thorough.

"You take out one portion, and the document's not accessible. So, what are we looking for? Are we looking to be accessible or not? We decided there really wasn't much we could leave out to produce an accessible document," Elmore said.

Employees took to the charge reasonably well. Because accessibility often requires special care with graphics and charts, some staff responsible for publications were concerned about the aesthetic impact of the new approach. That was largely fear of the unknown, Johnsen said. 

"Something that is beautifully designed might not be accessible. But something that's accessible can be beautifully designed," he said.

To help make accessibility practices simpler, extension IT built a custom menu bar in Microsoft Word to collect the needed headings and styles that help screen readers make sense of text.

"A lot of work has been done to make it as easy as possible," Robnett said.

Touting reasons

Emphasizing the reasons why digital accessibility is important also helped staff embrace the initiative, team members said. That includes both the impact on people with disabilities and the broader value of inclusive design.    

"Everyone can benefit from best universal design practices," Tendall said. "Incorporating universal design practices allows you to more effectively communicate to the widest range of consumers. People are more apt to see the value in learning how to do this when they see how this can benefit them both personally and professionally."

For example, video captions can help English-language learners, people who are deaf and people who just want to understand a video with the sound off. Contrasting colors are essential for people with color-vision issues, but they also make documents more readable if they are printed in grayscale. Larger font sizes have wide benefits, too.  

"I'll be honest, when we first started working with Ariel 12-point font, I felt like it was a kid's book, a large print kind of thing. But actually, now I don't have to use my glasses to read," Ertz said.

In training sessions, it's common for a participant to share a personal connection, often a family member, client or county council member who will benefit from being able to access digital content. That's probably made getting buy-in from staff easier for extension than it would be in other workforces, Elmore said.

"Almost all of our staff are working with Iowans face-to-face," she said. "They understand the importance of bringing the message to all Iowans, not just some."

'Icing on the cake'

Over their first year, Nelson and Robnett have completed about 10 percent of the 2,500 extension publications selected for accessibility remediation. That's about 2,000 pages fixed out of more than 27,000, Johnsen said. 

It is often tedious work. Nelson works on agriculture and natural resources publications, research-heavy articles that often have thorny data-presentation issues. Robnett works on 4-H, human sciences, and community and economic development documents, frequently rebuilding them from scratch because the native document is unavailable. It is helpful to have the source document to create a "tagged" PDF document, which makes screen readers more effective.

"You really have to tear it apart, almost line by line, when you only have the PDF document," Robnett said.

To help check their work, Robnett and Nelson vetted samples with a focus group of five people who are blind, a recommendation from the initiative's advisory council. Robnett said a recent session brought some good feedback. One panelist noted: "It is very evident you have a desire to cater to real users and not simply create a program to satisfy a requirement."

Wiley said that extra step is the "icing on the cake." 

"There are so many people doing this kind of work who aren't testing with actual users," she said. "Extension is really becoming the model for how you do this work."

Meet Amy Ward, P&S Council president


Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Position: Learning technologies coordinator, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
Years at ISU: 24
Contact: 294-5357,

What are the major challenges and issues Professional and Scientific Council will face this year?

We're going to continue to advocate for competitive employee compensation and benefits as we navigate through the upcoming class and compensation review process. We'll continue to watch the impact of improved service delivery. We'll continue to navigate the changes brought on by Workday and the university budget model. Those are what I think our challenges are right now. I know more things will come up.

What are the priorities for your presidency?

I'd point to the council's strategic initiatives: Improving the P&S employee experience through effective supervisor training and support, hiring practices, robust employee evaluations and doing work on compensation inequities in the departments and colleges.

What should your constituents know about council?

I want to tell them to get involved, whatever that looks like for them. We give opportunities for professional development. That could be what it means to them, or it could be communicating their needs to their representatives. Or they could get involved if they're comfortable being part of council. Or they could even just come to a meeting. Our meetings are open. If they're able to give their voice there, that's fine. We're always in need of representatives. We have one for every 75 people in each division. We're always looking for new people to get involved, whatever that looks like for them.

What would a successful presidency entail?

Success would be continuing to expand our efforts with university leadership to create a feeling of value and to cultivate the employee experience so we can thrive together -- that as the university grows, we are also able to grow. Our theme for the professional development conference this coming year has actually been named Thriving Together.

Tell us something about yourself that may surprise your colleagues.

I came to the university with the goal of improving the student experience for when my kids went here. Now my kids have both graduated from here, and I still have that goal of creating an awesome student experience. Obviously my job really, really provides a good place to do that. But I also want to make an impact with staff and improve employee engagement, retention and satisfaction because happy and engaged faculty and staff equal happy and engaged students. 

Meet Jonathan Sturm, Faculty Senate president

Jonathan Sturm

Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Position: Professor of music
Years at ISU: 22
Contact: 294-7399,

What are the major challenges and issues Faculty Senate will face this year?

Faculty morale remains a challenge across the university. ISU is a great place to work, and yet we exist currently in an environment of increasing workloads with additional training and learning curves for new technologies. Decreasing state support has held salaries down when compared to our peers. The senate also needs to keep a close watch on how the new Workday and improved service delivery systems affect the work lives of the university community. Often at this early time in the academic year, other specific challenges have yet to arise. My experience has been that they nearly always do, and they can define a presidency from that moment on.

What are the priorities for your presidency?

I hope this year the senate considers and moves forward on a number of important topics. I hope to implement the first phase of recommendations from last year’s task force on the evaluation of teaching. I intend to work with the vice president for research [Sarah Nusser] to increase the presence and stability of the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. I will always keep a welcoming and inclusive campus as a priority, and I hope to emphasize ways to forward the senate committee on equity, diversity and inclusion’s suggestion to develop and sustain a civil and equitable departmental and institutional climate.

Open access for research and publication, open data and open educational resources will remain a priority for me. I intend to open more discussion about faculty workload, particularly teaching and service loads. I think reconsidering and raising the value and role of peer review assignments in the promotion and advancement process is ready for discussion. Finally, I intend to keep salaries as a top emphasis with the Board of Regents and our senior leadership.

What should your constituents know about Faculty Senate?

The senate is the universitywide governance body for faculty. It creates and edits the Faculty Handbook, which houses the policies by which the faculty operate. The senate also is one of the principal avenues for shared governance across the university through consistent contact with administration and staff. We meet monthly, and any faculty member with an interest in university governance is encouraged to consider running for a seat on the senate. Each department has a representative, and each college has several at-large representatives.

What would a successful presidency entail?

I hope that by May there are noticeable changes at ISU concerning the evaluation of teaching. I hope any current concerns with Workday and improved service delivery have successful resolutions, and the university feels it has weathered the problems and been successfully onboarded with these two systems. Perhaps most of all, I hope that I can perform even one act that assures all our faculty that ISU is becoming even more of an inclusive and supportive university for all to work and learn. 

Tell us something about yourself that may surprise your colleagues.

When I am not teaching, working or performing as a violinist or violist, I enjoy hiking, scuba diving and golf.

Term faculty have new titles, more consistent policies

Hundreds of faculty didn't change jobs over the summer, but their titles did.

Following a two-year process to gather information, receive feedback and suggest changes, nontenure-eligible faculty are now called term faculty. The Faculty Senate approved the change in May 2018.

The change brought new titles -- effective July 1, 2019 -- and are more than just a new business card. Appointments, reviews, reappointments and career advancement are now more consistent for about 400 term faculty.

"It gives a better definition of each of the responsibilities and parameters of the job," said associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology Rob Wallace, who chaired the task force on nontenure-eligible faculty. "It provides an explicit set of policies in terms of review that could be adhered to across the university. When we started this process, practices varied from unit to unit, from one side of campus to the other."

Term faculty appointments are based on professional and academic experience and performance.

There are five term faculty tracks, each with ranks of assistant, associate and full professor. A lecturer appointment remains available for instructional faculty.

  • Teaching: This applies to faculty who spend at least 75% of their time on instruction, advising and curriculum coordination. An assistant teaching professor has a multiyear contract but has not advanced in rank. The lecturer title is for early-career faculty with a contract of one year or less.
  • Practice: These faculty come from nonacademic employers but have significant professional experience. They spend at least 75% of their time teaching in their area of expertise.
  • Clinical: Clinical faculty provide services to individual patients or clients and are largely found in the College of Veterinary Medicine. They incorporate those services with their teaching.
  • Research: Faculty with this title spend 80% of their effort on externally funded research, with at least 10%, but no more than 20%, of their salary paid from the general fund.
  • Adjunct: Adjunct faculty have a wider range in their teaching. This appointment can help ISU retain or recruit outside experts or strong faculty members, including dual-career couples.

On July 1, the titles of continuous adjunct, senior lecturer, clinician and senior clinician were retired.

Wallace said the response from term faculty members has been largely positive.

"They are happy and satisfied that there is a career path for them now and, although it took a long time, the final product is comprehensive and gives them a voice," he said.

Ash tree threat changes landscape

Norway spruce tree

At more than 50 feet tall and 70 feet wide, this Norway spruce tree, pictured left, is the largest of its species on campus. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Campus landscape is being mapped with GIS tech

Details about thousands of trees and shrubs are being recorded as part of an ongoing effort to electronically map the campus landscape.

Iowa State was proactive in preparations for the emerald ash borer, a metallic green beetle that is working its way across the United States and killing all ash tree species along the way. Part of the plan was reducing the number of ash trees on campus by about 560 -- a drop from 20% to 7% of the total tree canopy -- from 2007 to 2018. About 600 ash trees remain, 75 of which are being treated against infestation.

Rhonda Martin, landscape architect in facilities planning and management, said 683 trees were planted to replace the ash removals. Of the 38 tree varieties planted, the majority are from nine varieties: tuliptree, black gum, Kentucky coffeetree, honeylocust, hackberry, ginkgo, American yellowwood, linden and elm.

Unique finds

Martin said the campus canopy includes some species rare to Iowa. Her favorite is the Japanese stewartia in the courtyard of Lagomarcino Hall. Other unique trees include nine of the biggest for their species on record in Iowa:

  • Black tupelo
  • Chinese lilac tree
  • Eastern wahoo
  • English oak
  • Katsura tree
  • Lacebark pine
  • Paperbark maple
  • Yellow birch
  • Yellowwood

Fall lectures series opens Sept. 5

With Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus role for the 2020 presidential election, it's fitting to have the fall lectures lineup kick off with national political commentator S.E. Cupp's talk on "Communications and Civility in Our Democracy" tonight in the Memorial Union Great Hall (7 p.m.). It's a keynote speech for the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication's fall summit.

The lectures series, a joint effort of the Student Government and provost's office, provides programming throughout the school year, often presented in collaboration with campus partners. Following are a few highlights for the fall semester. All lecture events are free and open to the public.

"My Battle with Mental Illness: Finding Hope in the Middle of Suffering"
Sept. 16, 7 p.m., MU Great Hall
Iowa State basketball alum Jake Sullivan will talk about being an award-winning performer on the court and in the classroom while silently dealing with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.

"Free Speech and Academic Freedom"
Sept. 17, 5:30 p.m., MU Sun Room
Hank Reichman, professor emeritus at California State University, East Bay, will discuss the wide range of challenges to academic freedom -- from politics to social media.

"Our Digital Future, Through the Lens of the Past"
Sept. 26, 8 p.m., MU Great Hall
Douglas Van Houweling had a long career in information technology leadership at higher education institutions. He'll examine what we've learned, where we might be headed and how we can realize a better future.

"Un/Seen: Gender, College Going and Transgender Student World-Making"
Oct. 7, 8:15 p.m., MU Great Hall
Z Nicolazzo, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, Tempe, will discuss her research on how gender creates tension on college campuses. 

"Gender and Communication on the Campaign Trail"
Oct. 10, 8 p.m., MU Great Hall
Kelly Winfrey, assistant professor in the Greenlee School, will tackle the unique challenges women candidates face to win over voters on the campaign trail.

A Conversation with Simon Groot
Oct. 14, 8 p.m., MU Great Hall
The 2019 World Food Prize Laureate and founder of East-West Seed has for decades provided vegetable seeds to farmers with small-scale operations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. His approach allowed farmers to earn more income while providing affordable vegetables with improved nutrition.

"Knowing How to Break the Rules: Set Design on Broadway"
Oct. 16, 7 p.m., MU Great Hall
Tony Award-winning set designer Rachel Hauck will talk about being a woman in the arts and ways to create more opportunities for women and people of color.

"Science, Technology and Faith"
Oct. 30, 7 p.m., MU South Ballroom
Aaron Dominguez, provost at Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., is a particle physicist who is inspired by his Catholic faith to study the origins of the universe.

"Seeking Security in an Unstable World"
Nov. 19, 8 p.m., MU Great Hall
Former FBI assistant director and current NBC News national security analyst Frank Figliuzzi will talk about geopolitical threats and security at every level during an armchair conversation.