Brandywine students keep community partnership alive at Ridley Creek State Park

MEDIA, Pa. — Since opening in 1967, Penn State Brandywine has taught its students the value of community service by partnering with local businesses, nonprofits and municipalities. Recently, Brandywine students worked with Ridley Creek State Park to update a project 10 years in the making.

Back in 2008, Brandywine partnered with Ridley Creek to design technological additions for the park’s existing tree biodiversity educational program. At the time, Ridley Creek had launched a walk-through biodiversity quiz — the park tagged various types of trees with unique numbers, and visitors were challenged to identify all 40 species correctly using an answer key at the park’s office.

The Brandywine students, who were members of a geoscience course taught by Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin, used technology to expand upon the tagged tree project. First, they created an informative, image-enhanced podcast about tree diversity through collaboration with the park’s education officer and local group Friends of Ridley Creek State Park. They also created a virtual tour of tree biodiversity in Google Earth. In 2009, the students even published an article about their work in the Journal of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science.

Although the biodiversity quiz, podcast and virtual tour were a promising start, the program was not without wrinkles. With time, the students and park employees involved in the programs creation began to see its inefficiencies.

“Zip forward to 2017, where the park has been challenged by the numbered tags falling off, dying trees, et cetera,” said Guertin. “The tour and quiz is not as effective as it used to be in serving the park’s educational mission.”

Last year, new Brandywine students returned to Ridley Creek — this time, to improve upon the biodiversity tour their former classmates created. They developed new web content for Ridley Creek and developed a flat database to hold relevant content about the trees.

In spring 2018, yet another wave of Brandywine students took up the Ridley Creek project.

“As part of our campus’ Sustainovation Grant, we applied for permission to work with Ridley Creek State Park to update the tour and to bring new technology to their education effort,” Guertin said.

Since then, Brandywine faculty and students have been working with park naturalist Gary Stolz to remove all the remaining tree tags, install new signage indicating the names of trees and create an interactive, virtual tour that will be accessible on the park’s website.

COMM 270 Ridley Creek State Park

As one of five Commonwealth campuses chosen to receive a PepsiCo Challenge Grant, Penn State Brandywine is working to address sustainability in Pennsylvania. This video highlights one of the sustainability projects the campus is working on with its community partner, Ridley Creek State Park.

Credit: COMM 270

The students’ project is currently being overseen by Nannette D’Imperio, lecturer in information sciences and technology (IST). According to D’Imperio, this has been an exciting year for the IST department at Brandywine.

“For the first time in our history, every project team in our IST capstone class was working alongside a real-life company, nonprofit or person,” she said. “Our students worked closely with groups like Ridley Creek and the Brandywine Boost recipients.”

By working with business owners and local entities, the Brandywine IST students have been able to track the real-life implications of the lessons taught on campus.

“There’s a different level of responsibility when you’re helping a real client,” said D’Imperio.

One of the students involved in the project last semester was Drew Sadik, a software engineer at Lockheed Martin who earned his bachelor of science degree in information science and technology at Brandywine in 2018.

“I worked on website design for Ridley Creek, including information about the park, an educational quiz on the various tree species contained within the park and a virtual tour that guests and users can take online,” said Sadik.

Sadik worked alongside three other students during the Ridley Creek project. Team members Austin Johnson, Devin Mader and John Navickas also graduated with IST degrees in 2018. Johnson now works as a junior technical support specialist at PrimePay, and Mader will begin working for AstraZeneca in September. Navickas, a United States Marine Corps veteran, will soon begin working for the Department of Justice.

The four worked together on the Ridley Creek project for their Integration and Problem-Solving capstone course. In addition to the programming completed by Sadik, the team worked on project documentation, design and development of a relational database to store the tree information, quiz questions for the interactive tour and data entry.

According to Sadik, the project was an opportunity to hone his IST skills while learning about a field outside of his immediate realm of study.

“Throughout the project, I had to increase and apply my knowledge of web development, and I’m sure that will come in handy down the line,” he said. “But personally, I thought it was fun to learn so much about the trees and park indirectly by simply working on their website.”

Most importantly, the ongoing effort at Ridley Creek has become a longstanding reminder of the value of service, volunteerism and community partnership — a value that Brandywine faculty, staff and students continue to uphold.

“It was exciting to see that the software my team developed will have real, tangible benefits to our community,” said Sadik.

The virtual tour is still being developed by Brandywine students and faculty and is expected to be available this spring.