January 8, 2021 Research Duo Earn Grant to Protect Wildflowers in North America’s Forests, Design Outreach Materials

digital image of understory of a forest
3D assets provided by University of Central Florida Harrington Lab


Eco systems are complex, and in the case of wildflowers, fragile. The combination of white-tailed deer and a variety of local and invasive plants threaten the survival of wildflowers in North America’s forests.  A unique duo of researchers at UT Knoxville is investigating what can be done—and explaining why we should care—and the National Science Foundation has taken note.

For more than a decade, Susan Kalisz, a professor of Ecology and Evolutional Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, has investigated our forests’ understory, that vegetation that lies below the high canopy of trees and how that vegetation is threatened by local wildlife and other predators.

Seeing an opportunity to collaborate, Cary Staples, a professor in the School of Design in the College of Architecture and Design, is co-investigator with Kalisz to provide public outreach and educational materials for the dynamic research.

The duo began collaborating on the research project in January 2018, and in December 2019, they learned that the National Science Foundation has awarded them a two-year, $300,000 grant to support the wildflower research and create outreach materials.

“Design is key to making this important research accessible to the public,” Staples said.  “Graphic Design students as well as members of UT’s App.Farm will create educational experiences to help us all understand the complex scientific research and become invested in the outcomes.”

In spring 2021, students in Staples’ studio will conduct significant research of their own to understand the science behind Kalisz’s work. They will create materials that might include infographics, posters, signage, board games, 3D models, gallery installations and other open-ended exploration experiences for a variety of audiences.

“This transfer of information is academia at its best and part of UT’s land-grant mission to positively impact our region and world,” Staples said.  “The approach to engage students in this way is unique and supports the value of undergraduate research at UT.”

Studio work will be used to inspire creation of educational materials by members of the App.Farm.  Founded by Staples in 2015, the App.Farm is an innovative studio that supports interdisciplinary student teams who create augmented reality or virtual reality learning experiences.  A likely outcome is an app that uses questions and puzzles to encourage people to actively explore the forest in unique ways, such as a trip into the earth to witness damage to wildflowers by native herbivores and non-native plants.

“The products from the students in studio and App.Farm will excite and engage users by visualizing ecologically relevant information about future forests in North America,” Staples said.  “We will be able to reach a broad audience to foster public understanding of ongoing changes to our forests and entice action to protect them.”