Scan, Link, Learn: QR-coded landscape enhancing active learning

WEST LAFAYETTE —You may have passed them by hundreds of times, but if you look closer at the plants and signage surrounding Purdue Honors College, you’ll discover a landscape treasure chest. With the simple scan of a phone, curious souls can learn everything they ever wanted to know about the greenery around them. QR (or quick response technology) is connecting people and plants.

“That was the major goal here, to excite people to—at the very least—know the names,” Purdue Arboretum Director Paul Siciliano explained. “We have most of the plants on campus signed and then, for those who want to learn a little bit more, you can connect through the mobile learning platform we have developed throughout campus.”

It’s called the Arboretum Explorer and it’s helping visitors soak in the majesty of more than 800 unique plants on Purdue’s campus. While the QR-based educational initiative launched back in 2013, it has now expanded to include intensively signed gardens and landscape features at Honors College and Residences. Look carefully around HCR and you’ll be introduced to nearly 40 plants—many of them native—and an edible garden.

“In this particular environment, that promotes active learning, it seemed to be a good fit,” Siciliano said.

“For us, it is a sense of intentional placemaking,” added Honors College Dean Rhonda Phillips. “We want students to know what is special about this community and this state. We want to promote health, happiness and well-being, and part of that is getting our scholars outside in these public green spaces.”

Users scan QR codes on a plant or landscape feature label, link to that plant or feature’s page on the Arboretum Explorer website, then learn by using the wide expanse of information available on the website and database. They will discover the Latin and botanical name of the plant, its primary characteristics, related plants and other campus locations. In addition, users can go on a campus landscape tour or create their own. Arboretum staff have designed routes for the various seasons, highlighting notable Purdue features. While there has been some debate as to the place of technology in public gardens and landscapes, the Purdue Arboretum feels that it is best adapting to and “speaking the language” of its specific and diverse taxa of users at the university.

“I always say if you ask me what plant I like the best, it’s like asking what kind of pie I like… It’s the one I am eating right now,” Siciliano said, laughing. “There are always seasonal highlights, there’s fall color, wonderful fruiting.”

If you think maintaining this vast repository of information is a challenge, you would be right. Siciliano likens it to running a restaurant. His team of 3-4 interns operates with meticulous care, constantly vetting, verifying and updating information. In fact, they consider it a personal mission.

“I think it’s important for everyone to be connected to nature in some way,” intern Katilin Sterwerf said.

“I’m just looking for it [the Arboretum Explorer] to become more relevant on campus,” Siciliano added. “I think once you see people out there with their phones, listening and engaging, word will spread.”