TreeTops 2000 is a project full of heart and hopes, sweat and dreams. The physical goal of the project--building a fantastical, interactive, three-level observation tower at the edge of a gorge at the Cayuga Nature Center--reflects an ability to think big and to aim high. The motivations and visions of the project collaborators reach even higher. The collaboration itself is inspirational: the class of 2000 at Ithaca High School (IHS), their parents and teachers, architects from Leathers and Associates, and environmental educators from the Cayuga Nature Center (CNC) are working together to serve and include as many in the community as possible.
Planned to rise 22 feet above its own first level and even higher above the floor of the gorge it will flank, the TreeTops 2000 structure will allow visitors to view the gorge's Denison Falls, wandering wildlife, and the area's mixed forest of oak, hemlock, and maple from a treetop perspective. This ultimate nature treehouse will feature educational exhibits and observational opportunities. In addition to a central, easily climbable staircase, the tower will also feature a more adventurous alternate route to the top. Crawl tunnels between the platforms will simulate the habitats of animals that live within different levels of the forest structure. A coated wire spider's web and a climbing wall are planned to allow for fun and physical challenges along the way.
Facing a challenge
By choosing such a huge, high-profile service project, students from the class of 2000 have challenged themselves to learn, work hard and present themselves to the community. Pride and hope characterize the dedicated group of students who have been working together for two years. They have faith that the community will support them with funds and volunteer labor to complete the project. The seniors have seen the effects of their work in improved community attitudes towards high school students. Linda [name omitted], a student participant, feels that, because of TreeTops 2000 "the community has looked at us more and found us to be more respectable" than stereotypical negative images of youth may suggest.
Students are earning respect by contributing considerable creativity, skills and time to the project. In working with them, Leathers and Associates, a local firm which specializes in facilitating the design and building of community projects, ranging from playgrounds to Ithaca's own Sciencenter, is donating time and expertise. Leather's architects have been impressed with the work of the students. "All of the ideas are theirs, completely theirs," says the firm's Mari Rutz.
For Linda [name omitted], who served with dozens of her peers, the finished product is "a compilation of crazy ideas." In weekly design meetings, the team of architects worked with students to translate ideas into feasible drawings and plans. "It's amazing how many different steps there are for each design," explains Linda. "It took a year and a half to two years to get to where we are now."
While brainstorming sessions of the design committe kept the students' heads in the clouds, the practical aspects of organizing a project of this magnitude have certainly required them to have their feet on the ground. Numerous details require committees on project aspects as diverse as gathering donated materials and tools to providing food and childcare for hundreds who will be at the work site during construction.
For Cassandra Loomis, a biology teacher at IHS and advisor to the class of 2000, one goal has been to extend the learning experiences of TreeTops 2000 to as many students as possible. She explains that academic and extracurricular pressures for college acceptance, cliques, and employment limit extensive participation in after-school meetings by many students. By linking a required academic project to the Nature Center and TreeTops 2000, Loomis has involved more students, including underclassmen, and enhanced the curriculum by doing so.
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Nearly 200 students from ecological biology classes have visited Cayuga Nature Center to generate ideas for course projects. The results, even from initially reluctant students, were creative and proved to be their best work in the course. Loomis speaks passionately about her students' work and the value of supporting hands-on service projects as learning tools within the curriculum. Outstanding projects designed for display in the structure include a timeline of the evolution of species and an interactive spider web exhibit. One student has worked to translate a brochure for TreeTops 2000 visitors into nine different languages.
M.B. Livers, the executive director of Cayuga Nature Center, marvels at the diverse ways in which students have applied their talents and interests. Livers is also exicted about how TreeTops 2000 will enhance services offered to visitors at the center. The bottom level of the structure is designed to be accessible to all, and, with its placement near the gorge, will offer what amounts to a treetop view for those who are unable to climb to the top of the structure. The treehouse-like tower will be a stop on the planned "All People's Trail," which will be accessible to wheelchairs and strollers.
Being inclusive and gathering people together is another central goal of the project. Student Emily [name omitted] believes "the legacy of the project is going to be human interaction. TreeTops 2000 has been a catalyst for bringing the community together."
Fund-raising has been a vehicle for joining people and for honing student communication skills. Grants awarded by local organizations, donations by businesses, and fund-raising events are all the results of people connecting to support this appealing project.
By far the largest gathering of support from the community and students is expected at the construction of the observation structure, scheduled from Wednesday, September 22, through Sunday, October 3. Since the building site itself, on the edge of the gorge, is a dangerous one, most of the volunteer construction will take place in a meadow behind the Nature Center. Crews will work on the structure's elements piece by piece, and they will be transferred by crane to the building site where professionals will put the puzzle together.
Each workday will be divided into building shifts of approximately four hours, morning, afternoon and evening. Project coordinators are seeking hundreds of adult volunteers, both skilled and unskilled in carpentry, to work alongside students. Volunteers are also needed to provide support services such as childcare, food service, and tool distribution.
Anyone who has taken part in creating the several Ithaca-area community-built playgrounds or who helped to construct the Sciencenter knows that participation in a Leathers build is a feel-good activity. Bob Bell, a community member who plans to volunteer for TreeTops 2000, remembers his experience at the construction site of the Sciencenter: "We worked with Cornell University football players to move and raise huge support beams into place." Such connections are one of the exciting prospects of the project for CNC's Livers, who anticipates that the build will bring people together who normally would not work side by side, and will create bonds between them.
When describing the value of enabling people to view nature from a different perspective atop the TreeTops 2000 structure, Livers invoked the image of the artist: "Artists know that when you look at something from a different point of view, you grow to understand it more completely." Likewise, the community project will give adult volunteers an opportunity to see the youth of our community from a different point of view--as partners, working side by side to accomplish a creative, wide-ranging goal.
For information about volunteering or contributing funds to the Treetops 2000 project, call Cayuga Nature Center, 273-6260.
Ways to contribute: $25--an engraved picket; $100 or more--listed on donor board (send to TreeTops 2000 at CNC)
Carolyn Belle is a frequent contributor to the Ithaca Child.