Young Delaware State Fair attendees check out the UD-created computer game.

Native plants rule

UD-created computer game teaches Delaware State Fair goers about 'green' plants

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9 a.m., Aug. 1, 2012--Native plants rule when it comes to stormwater management – that’s the lesson children and other visitors to the Delaware State Fair learned when they stopped to play computer games at the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) exhibit in Harrington last week.

The games, developed by computer science and art students at the University of Delaware, aimed to help the public understand that some garden and lawn plants are better for the environment than others. Players chose different plants and then watched to learn how the plantings affected water, wildlife and people in the game. 

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In one example, players who chose plantings considered invasive saw the plants spread across the board and prevent them from planting other beneficial plants. This visual illustration quickly demonstrated what it might take people seasons to witness in their own backyard.

In particular, the games educated the public that selecting the right native species can help manage stormwater runoff – water created during rain or snow that does not soak into the ground but flows into surface waterways and storm sewers. 

“People visit the exhibits because they are interested in learning. This is an ideal time to explain the tightly connected parts of the Delaware ecosystem,” explained Terry Harvey, UD assistant professor of computer and information sciences, who along with Troy Richards, associate professor of art, helped and advised the students in developing the games.

In the past, stormwater has been managed with engineering solutions such as large storm water systems built to quickly collect water and move it to another location. According to Susan Barton, a UD associate professor and Cooperative Extension specialist in plant and soil sciences who was involved in the project, properly managed stormwater is best left where it falls.

“As water collects, it becomes more forceful and dangerous,” she remarked. “Pollutants such as pesticides and herbicides picked up along the way become concentrated, posing a potential hazard for rivers and causing erosion problems. Native plants, well-adapted to Delaware's conditions, can help by intercepting rainwater that filters into the landscape, slowing it down and allowing it to be transpired back into the atmosphere.”

As more and more of the Delaware landscape is paved, there is less surface for proper water infiltration, causing even the smallest rain to puddle on roads and sidewalks. Rain gardens, for example, can help minimize runoff while providing important support for insects and birds. Using plants in unexpected places like rooftops and parking lots may also offer similar benefits, Barton said.

Students of Harvey and Richards initially developed 11 different games as part of a software engineering and art course last spring. Marianne Walch, environmental scientist, and Randy Cole, manager from DelDOT’s stormwater management program, evaluated the games for playability, educational potential and fun, selecting two of the games to debut at the state fair.

“Playing the games has been very effective in helping us deliver the message to both kids and their parents that small changes in the way they plant and maintain their own yard can have a large impact on the health of our waterways and ecosystems,” said Walch. “Professors Harvey and Richards and their students brought a lot of enthusiasm, talent and creativity to this project.”

UD faculty and students involved in the project include:

Article by Karen B. Roberts

Photos by Danielle Quigley and Troy Richards

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