Blog Post

Imagining America: Imagining Collaboration Exchange, Iowa at Vanderbilt (Thursday)

Thursday, March 3

After a lovely breakfast at the “Noshville” diner, we met with Steve Baskauf to learn about his Vanderbilt Tree Tour project ( Steve began by telling us about a “bioblitz,” in which non-experts collect data that experts then identify. His goal is to remove the dependence on experts by offering remote expertise through a digital database that tracks and catalogs images of trees. Using globally unique identifiers, Steve creates a more efficient alternative to the bioblitz that catalogs and provides metadata for a field of study he calls “biodiversity informatics.”

The online database promotes location-awareness environmentalism, offering scientific information about trees that have been tagged (on campus and elsewhere) within his database. In the next phase of development, Steve hopes to move to a mobile platform that uses RFID tags and user response systems to create a more accessible, interactive tour. The program itself is built with a fairly generic Javascript program, which allows Steve to optimize necessarily high-quality images for online and mobile platforms.

One of the unique features of Steve’s project is that all the information is stored client side, not server side. An RDF makes a web of connection between items that are scattered around the globe. Steve has no funding or tech support for the project, but he prefers it that way. With 5,000-8,000 visits per day, totaling up to 6.6 million viewers last year (almost all unique visitors), Steve could easily find support. However, he takes pride in his autonomy, which allows him to build a program without the mess of permissions or approval from digital industries or campus administration. His ultimate goal is to create common annotation systems across the scientific community, and he sees cloud computing as an important solution.

During lunch, we had an opportunity to meet with a number of Vanderbilt students, including Scott and Zach, two members of the new mobile app development club ( With 60 members across campus, mostly from computer science, the club works with departments across campus to develop apps for various programs. Teams of 6-10 students build one app per semester, working together at weekly meetings. While the service-based nature of the current program creates problems with retention, the team hopes to develop a more collaborative model for partnerships that creates more reciprocity and exchange. Both students, one a freshman and the other a sophomore, had active entrepreneurial careers in technology development on the side, in addition to full course loads at Vanderbilt. Their level of curiosity, motivation, and go-get-‘em-ness was deeply impressive.

Thursday afternoon, Jon, John, Jonathan and I had an opportunity to visit the Glencliff high school Garden Project ( With collaborators from the children’s hospital and Vanderbilt, including Amanda Hagood (a lecturer in American Studies at Vanderbilt whose students brought vermiculture bins to Glencliff and taught the high school students how to use them) and Liz Aleman (Healthy Children's Project Manager for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt and an adjunct instructor committed to service learning), the project allows students to learn about raising, selling, and/or preparing fresh food.

A very culturally diverse school, with 20 languages and 40 nations represented in a student body of 1,400, Glencliff is preparing to launch a 1/3 acre garden and a handicap-accessible garden this year in addition to the greenhouse and smaller gardens that students currently tend. Ecology teacher Hank Cardwell (this year’s Glencliff HS Teacher of the Year) asks students to work in the garden as part of his ecology class, and culinary arts students make food with the produce.

Students at Glencliff earned $23,000 in grant support to develop projects this year, gaining valuable experience in community fundraising, and future plans include developing a high school summer internship program to tend the garden during summer vacation and a business program to sell produce and make the program financially sustainable. Glencliff’s garden is one of 30 similar programs in Nashville, and the district recently launched a coalition that meets monthly to create collaborative opportunities.

Jon and I had an opportunity to give a campus presentation on civic engagement, public digital humanities, the Imagining Collaboration exchange program, and the “City of Lit” project before a reception at the Robert Penn Warren Center ( We had an opportunity to talk with some of the most committed and innovative practitioners of public scholarship, and we found numerous opportunities for collaboration between Vanderbilt and the University of Iowa, Nashville and Iowa City, Tennessee and Iowa.

My poetry tonight feels fitting again: the faculty, staff, and students at Vanderbilt show what it means “to look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you” (Walt Whitman).




No comments