Commencement speeches often include the exhortation that graduates go out and change the world. Students in West Virginia Universitys landscape architecture program have a head start on that.

Before they receive their bachelors degrees, landscape architecture students in WVU s Davis College must complete an extensive senior project where they develop a comprehensive design for an outdoor environment. Projects are varied and keyed to individual student interests, from city parks to golf courses, historic sites to college campuses.

“Its really a keystone experience for our students,”said Don Armstrong, associate professor of landscape architecture in the Davis Colleges Division of Resource Management.”The projects follow professional procedure and give the students a real sense of what their working lives will be like.”

The process begins in the fall semester of the studentssenior year. Individual students or teams of up to three research a specific branch of landscape architecture, such as riverfront redevelopment, urban landscapes and streetscapes, community development and residential design, and study examples of projects in those genres, refining their interests. Students will often work with a sponsoring design firm, developer or community organization, either developing their own vision for an existing professional project or offering their design expertise to a non-profit endeavor.

“Once their interests and prospective projects are refined, they develop goals and objectives and present them to the entire landscape architecture faculty,”Armstrong said. The presentation is intended to make sure students are”on track,”he added, choosing a project of appropriate scale and challenge to the students involved.

From there, the heavy lifting begins, as the students and teams create a professional caliber design proposal. Site inventories are conducted with attention to soil quality, land form, vegetation, and hydrology. Students analyze the impact of development,”what areas can be safely developed and which should be preserved and protected,”Armstrong said.

Then comes the conceptualization process and development of a preliminary design, which is again reviewed by the programs faculty. This process consumes the spring semester, as students refine their preliminary designs and create functional landscape solutions for their chosen projects. They also generate a number of technical drawings that could be used by contractors to execute the designs.

The capper of this keystone experience is a one-hour design presentation to faculty and fellow students.”The final presentation is key to the studentsprofessional development, as theyll be doing this throughout their careers,”Armstrong said. The students receive feedback at the presentation from faculty, field questions and a written project evaluation follows.

Three seniors, Tom Swisher of Natrona Heights, Pa., Beth Bartlett of Hurricane, and Aaron Richardson of Follansbee, undertook a redesign of Point State Park in Pittsburgh, creating a master plan for the parks rejuvenation under the sponsorship of Pennoni and Pressley and Associates.

According to Swisher, who was recently selected outstanding senior of the Division of Resource Management, the group was drawn to the project because of its urban setting, its themes of riverfront redevelopment and the opportunity to work with professionals already undertaking the project.

“We were able to go and visit the site, interact with the designers working on it and join in their meetings,”Swisher said.

Bartlett said the park posed a challenge because of its multiple uses, from large public events like the Three Rivers Arts Festival to visits from more casual users out for a picnic or a stroll.”We really viewed it as two different parks,”she said,”and kept those different uses in mind.”

One key understanding they took away from the project was the concept of division of labor.”I was the technical guy,”Swisher said.”Beth was the word person, and Aaron was the computer guy.”

But, Richardson stresses,”We definitely shared the load.”

Their project consists of 26 large plates, each containing sketches, diagrams, and narrative of existing conditions and proposed changes.

Closer to home, Linda Bagby of Morgantown and Erin Goodman of Williamson, Pa., created a master plan for future development of the Bretz Coke Oven site in western Preston County. At this National Historic Landmark, coal was mined and processed to make coke. The site proved ideal for Bagby and Goodman, both interested in designing for an existing site in need of reclamation.

“Our design provides interpretation of the historic activities of the site and the equipment and structures that remain,”Bagby said. As the site has been subject to environmental remediation, the team also saw an opportunity to highlight the mine land reclamation process as part of the sites educational component.

“The first thing we asked ourselves was what can we do to entice people to come visit the site,”said Goodman.”Its close to the Rail Trail of North Central West Virginia, and our design has created links to that. It could also easily be incorporated into the Appalachian Heritage Area thats currently in development.”

Bagby and Goodman drew heavily on the input and insights of area residents, meeting with the community group that initially sought the sites historic designation, the Mon River Trail Conservancy, and others. Their design is what Bagby describes as an”education and demonstration site,”examining the sites past while enhancing its present.

Theyve also worked to enhance the aesthetics of the site.”You dont want to disturb land if its not necessary,”said Goodman,”but this land was disturbed to begin with.”Keeping in mind the reclamation process, the team incorporated some landscape flourishes that transform an engineering process into a more beautiful setting. They tried to preserve wildlife areas, adding observation blinds and incorporating environmentally sounds drainage techniques that will prevent erosion.

Some projects took the students a bit further from campus. Christopher Balash of Cincinnati and Erik Moden of Athens, Ohio, redeveloped a former psychiatric hospital into a complex that can be used by nearby Ohio University for offices, dormitories and storage areas. They worked with the planning offices at OU on the project.

Jonathan Nutt of Winfield and Kevin Burch of Brookeville, Md., worked on a design for the Cincinnati Central Riverfront Park at the former site of Cinergy Field Stadium, linking the downtown to the waterfront and enhancing the sites sense of place.

Along with the above were designs for a residential development in Parkersburg, an 18-hole golf course in Colorado, a historic hotel in Grantsville and the town center for Urbana, Md.

“These projects are huge challenges,”Goodman said.

Not surprising. After all, they are changing the world.