Alumni Center landscaping an educational labor of love for students

April 17, 2003

University Park, Pa. - An excruciatingly protracted winter for many Pennsylvania gardening and landscaping fans has left them itching to get their hands dirty with outdoor improvement projects. Few are digging with the zeal - and under the deadline pressure - of Penn State students who have a scant 18 hours to turn an unremarkable lawn into a campus showpiece.

The rush job is just the beginning of a long-range sprucing up of the green space around the Hintz Family Alumni Center. By the time the last spade of earth is tossed for this semester, 40 to 50 landscape contracting students from the College of Agricultural Sciences and landscape architecture students from the College of Arts and Architecture will have been involved in the education- and service-oriented effort. Many more students are expected to participate in semesters ahead.

Cherished as an oasis in the midst of the academic buildings that dominate that part of campus, the lawn abutting the oldest portion of the alumni center - what was once the house of University presidents - has fallen behind the times since the structure sprouted a very modern addition, complete with its own enclosed and tidy lawn, in 2001. Included in the lawn's new spring wardrobe will be many bits of small foliage and a large Japanese maple being shipped from Oregon, walkways weaving throughout the space, a brick patio and a circular stone patio.

The nitty-gritty outdoor work on the edge of the property closest to the Electrical Engineering East and West buildings, and around the lawn's existing gazebo and "Olympic Wannabes" bronze sculpture of children at play, began April 10, with the first of just six three-hour installments of labor from students and office of physical plant landscape maintenance experts. What they accomplish before the semester's end will be phase one of a five-phase plan to thoroughly upgrade the landscaping at the center using private donations to support the vision of current and future students for the space. Upcoming phases will address improvements to the existing small pond and other corners of the lawn, as well as to the narrow area between the center and Engineering Units A-E.

For anyone who wants to watch the progress as it is made, the Alumni Association offers a Web cam view of the project, among other on-campus views, at

Most of the students at work this semester, like Matt Conlin of DuBois, are juniors taking Horticulture 464 (landscape construction) under the tutelage of Dan Stearns, associate professor of landscape contracting, and Martin McGann, assistant professor of landscape contracting. Starting with an office of physical plant design, the students spent nearly 12 weeks planning for the supplies and labor needs of the project - their first big construction experience within the major - before finally getting to break ground on it.

"I personally like it because you're outside," said Conlin as he and his fellow majors scraped up wheelbarrow loads of sod with picks and tore scraggly vines from the perimeter of the lawn on the first day of on-site duty. "I hate being inside. I think the best part of it is working with our classmates."

Stearns said that the alumni center project is the most complicated of any of the many off- and on-campus jobs ever tackled for the classes.

"That's good for the students," he noted. "Most of them love this - spending three weeks outside after working so long in the studio. You see them developing leadership out here that might not have been obvious in the studio."

Dean Baim of Robesonia, a recent convert to the landscape contracting major who has worked in the profession already, added that the variety of chores involved in the project - hardscaping, curbing, planting, grading, mulching and irrigation - contributes to its educational value.

According to other students, like Andrea Surface of Linesville, there's another primo aspect to the job - future bragging rights.

"We'll bring our kids here someday and say 'look at what we did our junior year,'" she predicted. "Wouldn't it be awesome if our kids went here?"

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009