Before this year, Payton Smiley knew butterflies were beautiful. What she didn’t know was that their wings are scaled or that they can see ultraviolet light.
“They’re pretty incredible insects,” the senior biology major said, “but I had no idea just how incredible — or complex.”
This spring, the Winchester native was one of 11 students who participated in an interdisciplinary class asked to reimagine the offerings and design of a live butterfly exhibit at Fort Wayne’s Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. As one of the indoor garden’s most popular attractions, the annual exhibit runs from April until July and draws an average of 21,000 regional visitors, many of whom are schoolchildren.
With that audience in mind, Smiley led the Ball State team in developing new educational materials for the “Beautiful Butterfly” exhibit. The handouts she created explore topics such as the texture of butterfly wings and educate visitors about native plants that attract butterflies to backyards.
“I loved being able to get out of the classroom and be this hands-on with a project. It’s definitely one of my favorite things I’ve done here as a student.”
‘A set of fresh eyes’
Under the leadership of Martha Hunt, associate professor of landscape architecture, students also worked collaboratively to develop a new design for the exhibit. Their proposal would make a chrysalis — or the butterfly’s pupa — into the focal point of a series of interactive stations throughout the conservatory’s gardens.
“So much of the work we do as landscape architects is for outdoor spaces,” said Carter Gordon, a senior from Christiana, Tennessee, “so this was a unique opportunity for us to create an installation inside a building like this.”
After making frequent trips to the conservatory in the spring, students presented their final proposal at an open house where community partners praised their work.
“We’re an innovative organization always looking for ways to keep the educational components of our butterfly exhibit fresh,” said Mitch Sheppard, the conservatory’s deputy director. “What the Ball State students have given us is a set of fresh eyes and a different way of looking at things with their marvelous, multipronged approach to the exhibit.”
From vision to possible reality
One of the students’ plans for the gardens around the butterfly enclosure is to showcase the species from microscopic, backyard and global perspectives, said senior landscape architecture Alyssa Babb, who frequently visited the conservatory while growing up in Fort Wayne.
“We really wanted to create different perspectives on the butterfly with every area we created,” said Babb, who said her local ties made the work especially rewarding. “And of course, inside the tent, visitors get to meet the butterflies themselves.”
What comes next for the exhibit will be decided by officials of Fort Wayne’s Parks & Recreation department, which oversees the conservatory. “Of course we want to do it all, but at a minimum, we’ll do as much as we can,” the department’s director, Al Moll, told the students, pledging to seek funding that would help offset the costs of an exhibit makeover.
No matter the outcome, students who participated in this spring’s project are invested in the final results. “I think all of us would really love to see these plans become reality,” Gordon said, “so if we can offer more recommendations on how to make that happen, we’d be happy to do it.”