Certification Would Take University to the ‘Next Level’ as a Living Lab for Student Research

A student looks at their phone while sitting in a red chair outside surrounded by trees Image by Ed Brennen
Against a colorful backdrop of blooming redbud trees, a student checks his phone on North Campus this spring.

By Ed Brennen

On an urban campus better known for historic mill buildings and gleaming new construction, it can be easy to overlook the fact that UMass Lowell is home to more than 1,300 trees. There are over 70 species spread across UML’s 147 acres of open space, from mighty red oaks, Norway maples and sycamores to picturesque river birches, horse chestnuts and weeping cherries.

Since 2011, the university has been designated a Tree Campus by the Arbor Day Foundation. There are 411 such campuses across the country, but just 14 in New England and only six in Massachusetts.

Now, under the direction of new Grounds Operations Manager Kevin Block, UML is poised to become certified as an arboretum — a place where trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes — by ArbNet, a nonprofit dedicated to helping create and conserve arboreta around the world.

“Becoming an arboretum takes us to the next level where we’re putting more time into the cultivation and curation of our collection of trees,” says Block, who joined Facilities Management in January. He previously worked as a horticulturist at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum and grounds manager at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

Three people lower a tree into a hole in the ground while a man looks on Image by Ed Brennen
Students Charlie Connolly, left, and Jack Branson and Grounds Operations Manager Kevin Block, second from right, help lower a tree into the ground on East Campus.
To be designated a Tree Campus, the university maintains a tree advisory committee that includes Block, Assoc. Director of Planning and Facilities Information Systems Peter Brigham and Asst. Director of Sustainability Craig Thomas, along with several faculty members and students. The university also is required to maintain a campus tree-care plan, dedicate annual expenditures for its tree program, and host an Arbor Day observance and student service-learning project.

To be certified as an arboretum, the tree advisory committee is developing a comprehensive master plan. Block hopes to complete the work this summer and announce the arboretum this fall — when the campus foliage is at its peak.

Since the campus landscape is constantly evolving, students from Asst. Prof. James Heiss’ Geographic Information System (GIS) in Earth and Environmental Sciences courses have been helping Facilities Management update its tree inventory for the past three semesters by collecting field data using GPS-enabled apps on their smartphones.

“It is important that our students learn how to collect data in the field using internet-enabled devices, because it is now a fundamental skill in the geosciences,” says Heiss, who has students log the location, height, tree trunk diameter and tree condition on an ArcGIS Field Maps app, then upload the data to a shared map in the cloud.

“Students are often surprised by the diversity of trees we have on campus,” says Heiss, who will continue the project this fall.

Another Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences faculty member, Asst. Prof. Joy Winbourne, plans to conduct research with students on urban heat islands and how the different species of trees at the university tolerate drought, according to Block.

“We’re excited to involve faculty research and make the arboretum a living lab for students,” Block says.

A group of people shovel dirt onto a planted tree as part of a ceremony Image by Ed Brennen
As part of the university's Arbor Day observance in April, then-Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, third from right, and Grounds Operations Manager Kevin Block, second from right, took part in a ceremonial tree planting with city officials on East Campus.
At the university’s annual Arbor Day event in April, students helped plant 17 trees — including red maples, sugar maples, elms and magnolia — in front of Leitch and Bourgeois halls on East Campus.

Besides the aesthetics and environmental benefits, Block says he appreciates how trees “give you a sense of calm” on campus, allowing for “a nice place to study, to work, or to take a little time off and regroup.”

“I’ve always loved trees,” says Block, who grew up outside of Philadelphia and earned a bachelor of science in wildlife management from the University of New Hampshire and a master’s degree in environmental and sustainability management from Harvard.

“What they have to go through to live is incredible: weather, insects, pests, an urban environment, snow and salt, bad soils,” he says. “It’s amazing to see them, each year, overcoming all those odds.”