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ISU students work with community members to create Mortensen Mounds monarch waystation

December 10, 2015


Bachelor of Design senior Ryan Vest, Nashua, receives feedback on his project during a review with Heidi Hohmann, associate professor of landscape architecture.

AMES, Iowa — What began as a vacant parcel of land has become a learning opportunity for Iowa State University students and the Ames community.

Eleven Bachelor of Design students have spent the second half of fall semester working with residents of a southwest Ames neighborhood to transform the "Mortensen Mounds" site into a monarch butterfly waystation.

The site is about a half-acre of land located at the corner of Mortensen Parkway and Ash Avenue that was used as a dumping site in the 1960s during construction of Iowa State’s Knapp-Storms and Wilson-Wallace residence halls. Now owned by the city, the land is overgrown with invasive plants and unused.

Mike Burkart, a retired ISU lecturer in hydrogeology who lives in the neighborhood, saw this as an opportunity. He and other residents decided to transform the vacant site into a monarch waystation, which acts as a habitable area for the butterflies on their annual migrations north and south.

"We went to the [College of Design] to ask for help to make it an informal educational experience," Burkart said. "We'll use their ideas to work together and make something more than just plantings."

Studio instructor Tom Neppl, senior lecturer in landscape architecture and design, collects plant samples at Mortensen Mounds in southwest Ames.

Tom Neppl, an ISU senior lecturer in landscape architecture and design, co-directs a learning community of freshmen in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that worked with residents to remove weeds from the site earlier in the semester. He also incorporated the Mortensen Mounds project into his Environmental Literacy by Design studio, a Bachelor of Design class in the College of Design.

"There is a huge disconnect between people and the outdoors," said Neppl. "This studio is about reconnecting people to nature, and raising awareness and hopefully interest in making something more."

Neppl's studio has worked with neighborhood residents to clean up the site, remove invasive species and plant native prairie species that are beneficial to monarchs and other pollinators like honeybees. Each student also has developed concepts for a dynamic sculpture for the area as well as a static element that would act as both a sculpture and as seating for those who visit the site.

To raise public awareness about the monarchs, Neppl asked students to base their design concepts on the butterfly's life cycle, its habitat and its migration patterns.

BDes senior Jordan Starmer presents her design concepts based on the life cycle of the monarch butterfly to reviewer Julie Stevens, assistant professor of landscape architecture.

Senior Jordan Starmer, Des Moines, was inspired by the life cycle of the monarch, designing paths that emulate the movement of the larvae, creating a seating area based on the shape of a caterpillar as it forms itself into a pupa, and a final flexible sculpture inspired by the monarch emerging from its cocoon.

"The project is all about the journeys that the monarchs take, both personal and geographical," Starmer said. "And it was really nice feeling like we were doing something to help in the community."

Process work by BDes senior Sven Nielson shows his proposal for a wooden bench whose back is shaped like a monarch's wing.

Sven Nielson, Albert City, also a senior in design, was inspired by the motion of a monarch's wings as it flies. He used that image to create hanging spinners to capture the attention of drivers and pedestrians along the busy roads.

"I grew up on a farm, and I agree that there's a huge disconnect with nature," Nielson said. "I've enjoyed the opportunity to work with clients in the community to come up with concepts for the sculptures here."

The class presented its ideas at a final studio review earlier today at the College of Design. The students' work will be displayed publicly from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14, in the auditorium of the Ames Public Library, 515 Douglas Ave.

Burkart and Neppl plan to seek funding to pursue some of the students' ideas for developing the Mortensen Mounds site.

"This is a project that will take years; you don't just turn an area into prairie immediately. That's pretty exciting to me," Neppl said.

Tom Neppl, Landscape Architecture and Design, (515) 231-0547,
Mike Burkart, Mortensen Mounds volunteer project manager, (515) 292-6835,
Sven Nielson, Design senior, (712) 229-8082,
Jordan Starmer, Design senior, (515) 745-4775,
Patrick Budding, Design Communications, (641) 990-8293,
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289,