Life Sciences Communication Class Partners with Arboretum to Tell Unique Tree Stories and Highlight Plant Blindness

Curator David Stevens tells tree stories to Life Sciences Communication students visiting for a Social Media Analytics class.

Curator David Stevens tells tree stories to Life Sciences Communication students visiting for a Social Media Analytics class.

In spring 2022, the Arboretum worked with Professor Kaiping Chen’s Life Sciences Communication (LSC) 375 Social Media Analytics class as a “client” exercise for UW–Madison students. The path to this class partnership began in 2021 when director Karen Oberhauser “reached out to Kaiping because of our shared interest in engaging people in science, environment, and technology discussions. My own background with science and conservation outreach has always centered on how to make people care, and it was clear that this was important to her as well.”

Social media is a valuable communications tool for mission-based organizations. It offers direct two-way engagement with followers about issues that matter to them. It is also data rich and ever-changing. Social media managers need to be prepared with an adaptable skill set and an understanding of the field.

Kaiping Chen, Life Sciences Communication (Photo: Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS)

Chen says, “Throughout this course, I teach students that the three pillars of social media analytics are critical perspectives, data science methods, and analytics tools.” They learn these pillars “through literature review and class discussions about social media, science and environment communication, and public engagement through social networking. The class also integrates data science with field work and client interactions to develop social media strategies for environment communication.”

Organizations track and interpret how people respond to posts to learn what followers are interested in. These reactions indicate if a particular post is successful, and by watching for trends in how people respond, it is possible to learn more about what posts are most meaningful. This information helps social media managers create and share content more effectively, which helps grow engagement and enhance the relationship between an organization and community members.

Through this partnership, the Arboretum hoped to learn more – directly from young people – about ways to better reach them through social media and to encourage visitation for personal enjoyment that could also foster appreciation, respect, and care for nature.

For this assignment, we asked the class to focus on the issue of plant blindness.* In our modern world, we often do not notice or recognize the rich diversity of plants or distinguish between them. For David Stevens, Longenecker Horticultural Gardens curator, telling the unique stories of different tree species – and even individual trees – is one of his favorite ways to combat plant blindness. He believes stories can “personify” trees and thus engage curiosity about how each one is special. By “getting to know them better,” learning more about the variety and traits of different plants, people can increase their awareness and more deeply appreciate – and hopefully protect – plant diversity.

Curator David Stevens tells Life Sciences Communications students about the black tupelo “Carolyn,” which is renowned for it’s vivid fall color.

David and I first met with Professor Chen’s class in early February for introductions and an overview of the Arboretum and the project. In late March, the class took a field visit to the Arboretum. David shared fascinating plant biographies of the Black Tupelo “Carolyn” outside the visitor center, a gingko tree (watch Instagram video clip), and the winter-blooming vernal witch hazel while students took notes, captured photos and video, and began brainstorming ideas for Instagram posts (see student group post 1 and group post 2 on Instagram).

Following the field visit, students spent class time reviewing current research about social media engagement and analyzing the Arboretum’s Instagram account to study the effectiveness of different posts. They then created a range of proposed social media posts and outlined their strategies and rationale. In late May, David and I attended another class to hear students’ presentations.

Luke Curran, Jazlyn Schumaker, Brooke Maxfield, and Zhuoer Wang, all students in LSC 375: Social Media Analytics, give a presentation for their client, the UW Arboretum. (Photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS)

We found their analysis, content, and recommendations to be very insightful. They affirmed some things we knew about what makes our social media strategy successful, and they highlighted some new approaches to consider, such as reels and interactive posts. As savvy social media users themselves, they also learned to test some of their own assumptions about what makes successful content.

“There’s a long way between information and a post on social media; the ability and the strategy of component combination is critical.” – Yifei

“Something that stuck out to me . . . was how important understanding the data is and how you can use it to your advantage . . . it was cool to directly deal with a client and give them feedback.” – Grace

Students also highlighted the value of good storytelling and compelling visuals on a platform like Instagram, and emphasized that video is especially engaging to younger audiences. They noted that social media can offer access and a sense of connection to nature for urban residents, or to a favorite place even when people live far away. Appealing posts can also motivate people to go outside and visit a place or join in an activity. And interesting, digestible educational posts can help demystify things we don’t understand.

“The virtual world provides a great platform to inform and provide people with a chance to find passion in nature – preventing plant blindness. Plant appreciation can be increased . . . by providing more information and opportunities for people to engage with nature.” – Joe

We wanted to test this notion with the students themselves, so we asked if visiting the Arboretum, hearing tree stories, and creating content changed their perspective on plants in their everyday lives. Many agreed it had opened new awareness and sparked curiosity about the trees around them.

“Yes, my perspective on trees definitely changed over the course of this class. Specifically, every individual tree has a story that is unique, just like different animals and people have different stories.” – Isabel

It was a valuable experience to work directly with the students, hearing their research, insights, and recommendations and helping to provide a real-world “client” experience. They are being well prepared by Life Sciences Communications professors like Kaiping Chen and others. We hope some of them will pursue careers in environmental communications, to help people learn and care more about nature. As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in Braiding Sweetgrass, “To love a place is not enough. We must find ways to heal it.”

—Susan Day, communications manager

*Several people have commented on the Instagram post about plant blindness that the term “plant blind” is ableist. This is language that the Arboretum introduced to the students, and we take responsibility for this use of language in their posts. We think it’s important to question biased and harmful language and want readers to be aware of these comments.