Envisioning a new outdoor classroom at PSU: The Oak Savanna

Since 2011, students from the Student Sustainability Center and other organizations have advocated for the "Oak Savanna" space at SW 10th and Montgomery to be designated as a campus greenspace. The space is currently unmanaged. One day, we hope this space will share the natural history of our region, offer a place for reflection and healing, create wildlife habitat, and demonstrate Indigenous land practices for food, medicine, art, and ceremony. In 2017, a landscape architecture firm was hired by the Campus Planning Office to create a proposed vision for the space with community feedback. This vision has been shared with University administrators for consideration.

Although the site has not been designated, programs and classes utilize the space as an informal outdoor classroom. With the recent addition of construction equipment next to the Savanna space and other campus building projects, the Savanna has experienced heavier use from dogs. 

Site Features

  • 28 log seats: Reclaimed from trees felled during renovation of the School of Business Administration
  • Culturally-significant plants: Species include Oregon white oak, lupine, yarrow, and native grasses. Camas bulbs from the Quamash Prairie were blessed by Native representatives and planted in the Savanna in 2012. Look for blooms in late spring.
  • Wildlife: Hundreds of bees, butterflies, ladybugs, dragonflies, and other insects inhabit the space each spring and summer.
  • Peace poles: Originally presented to the University by PSU’s student ambassadors after 9/11, the poles share a message of peace in 25 languages and were relocated to the Oak Savanna this summer. 

Place-based learning in one of Earth’s rarest ecosystems

PSU’s Oak Savanna changes and evolves with the seasons. The space is selectively mowed once each August after plants have completed their annual bloom cycle. This strategy promotes ecological succession and biodiversity. It also mimics the historical role of fire in oak savannas while maintaining a safe urban greenspace that is available for a variety of uses by PSU and the community. 

Oak is fire resistant and slow growing. Historically, human-made and naturally-caused fires cleared out brush and other young trees in Willamette Valley savannas, leaving oak trees to mature with an open understory of grasses and forbs. During European settlement, oak habitat was devastated to build homes and implement agricultural practices. Today, only 1 percent, or 10,000 acres, of original oak savanna habitat remains in the Willamette Valley. PSU’s Oak Savanna is part of Metro’s Oak Quest project to map and preserve oak habitat in our region.

How can the Oak Savanna enhance your students’ learning experience?

At least 17 classes and programs and 13 community organizations have utilized the savanna as an outdoor learning environment. The following examples share inspiration for using the savanna for a wide range of educational contexts:

Professor Olyssa Starry’s Urban Ecology class studied insects, plants, and species biodiversity in the savanna during spring 2014. They identified species, collected data about biodiversity, and created lab reports based on their findings.

Students in Judy Bluehorse-Skelton’s Environmental Education through the Native American Lens and Indigenous Gardening classes have studied historical and current uses of native plants for medicine, food, and ritual over multiple years. The class also focuses on the historical and contemporary role of fire in the Pacific Northwest. Students have collected willow and are installing a natural fence. In summer 2014, the classes identified 77 bumblebees, more than 300 honeybees, 16 butterflies, 56 ladybugs, and 9 dragonflies in the savanna. 

Lake Oswego-based non-profit Living Islands has partnered with PSU’s Native American Student and Community Center and one of the few remaining master builders from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tiem Clement, to handcraft a 25’ traditional outrigger canoe from salvaged redwoods and coconut fibers this fall. Aimed at increasing awareness about the Marshallese community in the Pacific Northwest, the building process will take place outdoors in the Oak Savanna so the general public will have full access to follow and participate in the project. 

The Student Sustainability Center’s Garden Task Force planted a variety of different native grass and native wildflower mixes in the savanna to test their various effectiveness in outcompeting non-native grasses. They have also researched plant species, hosted cultural events, dried flowers, and created temporary art installations.

Heather Burns’ Ecological and Cultural Foundations of Learning class offered an opportunity for students to lead a group teaching session in the Oak Savanna, and Sybil Kelley’s Urban Farm Education class completed a reflective observation activity in the space and designed an interactive learning module that is tailored for the savanna. 

How to participate in the Oak Savanna outdoor classroom

Garden-based education leads to increased engagement and retention of information of learners. It also makes content come to life by engaging multiple senses and learning styles. Gardens bring much-needed outdoor life, wonder, and beauty to the college experience. How can your class or program connect with the savanna to enhance student learning?

Heather Spalding is the sustainability leadership and outreach coordinator with the Student Sustainability Centeran accessible hub that integrates sustainability with the student experience through transformational learning opportunities.