A new undergraduate course in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife explored the use of art as a way to communicate science, with a focus on promoting the Rachana Rajendra Neotropical Migrant Bird Sanctuary.
Located in the Baker Woodlot at Michigan State University (MSU), the Rachana Rajendra Neotropical Migrant Bird Sanctuary is an urban refuge for people and birds alike. This small, but largely undisturbed deciduous forest provides the MSU community with a special place to observe birds, conduct research and explore nature along winding paths in a quiet wood.
“The Rachana Rajendra sanctuary and Baker Woodlot is a wonderful resource for all of us on campus and in East Lansing,” said Erin Dreelin, associate professor in the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and coordinator for the Water Science Network.
“It is one of eight category 1 natural areas on MSU’s campus, which means it has the highest level of protection,” Dreelin continued. “It’s about 78 acres of forest that supports a variety of wildlife. There's something to explore each season–right now is a great time to see the vernal ponds. Multiple classes use it for teaching students about plants, wildlife and the environment.”
To help protect this natural area, a fence surrounds the sanctuary. While the fence protects the wildlife within the sanctuary, it also deters visitors. As such, it is not widely known that the sanctuary is a public resource, open to visitors.
Gift of lifelong learning
The Rachana Rajendra Neotropical Migrant Bird Sanctuary on campus is a living memorial for Rachana Rajendra, an Okemos resident who loved birds and nature. When a tragic automobile accident took her life in 1997, her parents, Kunwar and Shanno Rajendra, along with family and friends, established an endowment in her memory. The endowment encourages education, training and research in the area of neotropical migrant birds.
Initially, the funds were used to create and maintain the Rachana Rajendra Neotropical Migrant Bird Sanctuary. Today, the endowment also provides funding for students interested in avian species; supports the improvement of the sanctuary trails, entrances and signage; and supports the development of educational materials about the birds in the sanctuary.
After meeting the Rajendras last year, Dreelin used the sanctuary as a case study in a course she teaches for graduate students: FW895 The Practice of Outreach and Engagement.
As part of the class, students explored ways to raise awareness of the sanctuary. Students recommended using art, such as a sculpture near the entrance of the sanctuary, as a way to make the main entrance more welcoming and inviting to visitors.
Dreelin used this recommendation to develop a new undergraduate course, FW 491 Communicating Science through Art: Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. She worked with the MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology (The Hub) to create the course offered in spring 2019 semester. The Hub helps identify, accelerate and create new ways to learn, research, deliver instruction, and collaborate in order to facilitate innovation on campus.
“Students in the class explored the use of art as a way to communicate science, with a focus on the Rachana Rajendra Neotropical Migrant Bird Sanctuary,” Dreelin explained. “This was the first time the class was offered. It provided students with a unique learning experience. This course isn’t your traditional lecture-based course–it’s interdisciplinary and experiential.”
This specific course helps students develop cross-disciplinary skills outside their major like in branding, communication, design and website development.
Real-world course application
For the final class project, students worked in small groups to create communication tools to help promote the Rachana Rajendra Neotropical Migrant Bird Sanctuary.
“The project hits on three of the course learning objectives for students,” Dreelin said. “Students practice framing and communicating complex ideas related to bird conservation and wildlife sanctuaries to a broad audience; designing and carrying out a project to solve a complex, open-ended problem; and collaborating with students and faculty in the course.”
“The goal of this assignment was for the students to work in teams to raise awareness about the sanctuary by communicating the value of birds, wildlife sanctuaries, and conservation to the public through art or design,” Dreelin explained. “Student teams were responsible for identifying their target audience, crafting their messages and creating prototypes of their designs.”
Jessica Diaz, a fisheries and wildlife sophomore, was a member of the branding team for the class project. Her team worked on logo creation and web content.
“It’s so cool that as a student I could contribute to something that will continue to have an impact and be used by the sanctuary and the college even after I have graduated,” Diaz said.
“I chose to be on that team because I think that the sanctuary should be its own identity and have an identity of sanctuary and being a refuge for all life – not just wildlife, not just humans – all life.”
Diaz explained that the current Rajendra Sanctuary website exists as part of the fisheries and wildlife web page. Their team strategized how to improve the online user experience.
“Our new website provides more resources for visitors and more information about the sanctuary.”
She noted that the sanctuary was created with the idea to be a place not only for wildlife and plant life, but also for students.
“That’s so important because MSU is an enormous campus, it’s always so busy and it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day stimulation and we get stressed out. But, whenever I visit the sanctuary, it feels like a different world to me and it is a very peaceful place,” she shared.
“When I visited in the past, I generally use the sanctuary from a science perspective; going out there through this class has really changed my perspective. By having this class I’ve seen fellow students be exposed to the sanctuary to otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s one of the reasons this class is important.”
Additional team projects from the class included entrance signage, fence and storytelling:
- The entrance signage team developed a larger, more inviting sign at the entrance of the sanctuary.
- The fence team created large cutouts of colorful birds to adhere to the fence for visual appeal and to make it a more welcoming space.
- The storytelling team built a free lending library in the shape of a birdhouse. It also features a waterproof compartment to hold bookmarks promoting the sanctuary.
A unique element of the course was that the students had an opportunity to present their class projects and interact with Rachana’s parents, Kunwar and Shanno Rajendra.
“We were very pleased to see the students hard work put into presentations, and are thankful to Erin and the rest of the team that made it all happen,” Kunwar Rajendra said. “I can imagine our daughter would be very happy if she could see the work being done by the college for increasing awareness and appreciation in the community for the sanctuary, both on-campus and off-campus.”
Students interested in the birds and the sanctuary are periodically awarded fellowships through the Rajendra endowment. The Rajendra Fellows program develops a strong appreciation for connection between the public and Rachana Rajendra Bird Sanctuary at Michigan State University.
Learn more about the Rachana Rajendra Neotropical Migrant Bird Sanctuary, its birds and the endowment.