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CAO Design Challenge crafts outdoor spaces for children

March 20, 2014 -  By

Some clients told them to design a landscape that incorporated trees made of cotton candy. Others customers insisted on having an area where they could dig up treasure.

To deliver on these requests would be a challenge for any landscape designer. But for the teams of college students that received them as part of the Come Alive Outside (CAO) Design Challenge, they were unavoidable.

Somewhat of a spinoff from the CAO Challenge—which encourages high school National FFA Organization (FFA) students and college horticulture students to work together to drive their communities outside—the CAO Design Challenge was introduced as a pilot program this year and sponsored by John Deere.

It challenged four colleges—Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU), Oklahoma State University (OSU), Hinds Community College and North Carolina State University (NCSU)—to collaborate with a local high school FFA chapter to design an outdoor space for younger students in their community. The designs were to be created based on feedback from design charrettes with the children who would be using the space and professional landscape architects who offered critiques.

The teams had from the beginning of January to finalize their designs, which they presented to a panel of judges March 19 at Colorado State University in advance of the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) Student Career Days. 

Comprised of professionals from Sebert Landscaping, CoCal Landscape, Greenscape, PLANET Academic Excellence Foundation, Thornton Landscape and John Deere, the judges panel scored projects on requirements such as whether the space engaged all five senses, created a habitat appropriate for native wildlife, was functional for students and teachers and whether input from student focus groups defined the concept of the design.

The latter requirement seemed the most trying for the college students.

NCSU teamed up the FFA chapter at Wakefield High School to create a garden for Root Elementary in Raleigh, N.C.

The elementary school children requested elements in their garden that felt like porcupines and lip gloss. NCSU students countered the request with the suggestion to plant lamb’s ear.

BYU had similar requests. The preschoolers who were its clients, ages 3 to 5, requested a pool to be installed in their new playground. BYU met them in the middle by designing a stream instead. 

“It helped us think in a whole different perspective,” said Jillian Foss of BYU. “As landscape design students we’re used to thinking about people’s landscapes at their homes, thinking about it from the adult perspective. It was really great to think about it from the view of a child.”

While most colleges weren’t short on ideas from their clients, a challenge for Hinds was to get its clients to speak up. The college tackled the redesign of a bland courtyard at Pelahatchie High School in Pelahatchie, Miss., that would include the addition of a new lunch area. It created a questionnaire for the high schoolers to fill out as a form of feedback on the courtyard design.   

Hinds students said their project was like “working with a blank slate.”

OSU, on the other hand, had plenty to work with in terms of feedback and design space. It called on a class of third-graders for input on how to redesign 30 acres of underutilized space in their community. The area housed a deciduous forest, prairie, wetland, cedar forest and pond.

The college scored highest in the competition, receiving 94 out of 100 points. BYU slid into second with 92; NCSU scored an 86; and Hinds garnered 85 points. As all were participants in the pilot program, each school received a scholarship from John Deere in the form of the company covering the students’ travel expenses to Student Career Days.

Logistics for next year’s CAO Design Challenge are still in the works, said Jim Paluch, creator of CAO and president of JP Horizons. But he also “guaranteed” it will be held again.

“The four schools that were here today will be the energy behind it next year,” Paluch said.

Until then, Paluch said he intends to follow up with student designers and professors throughout the year to see if their projects, in fact, do come alive outside—cotton candy trees and all. 

About the Author:

Former Associate Editor Sarah Pfledderer is a West Coast-based contributing editor for Landscape Management.

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