Planting a Connection
to the Community
By Andrew Wyder

THE SEEDS OF INNOVATION—and interaction—have been planted at the corner of 33rd Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago‘s Bronzeville neighborhood, the beginning of a budding partnership between Illinois Institute of Technology and the community.

It’s there that the faculty, students, and staff who make up Illinois Tech are renewing the university’s connection to the communities on Chicago’s South Side through a new venture initiated by the university’s Office of Community Affairs and Outreach Programs and Assistant Vice President for Community Affairs Alicia Bunton.

Budburst Garden at Nate Thomas Memorial Meadow

The Budburst Garden at Nate Thomas Memorial Meadow is a community-based garden and ecological research center that is designed to bring together neighbors, students, researchers, educators, horticulturists, and community scientists. 

The meadow is a part of Chicago Botanical Gardens’ Budburst program—a network of community gardens that was established to answer specific, timely, and critical ecological research questions—and honors Nathaniel “Nate” Thomas, who established the trailblazing Early Identification Program for minority recruitment at Illinois Tech. Thomas passed away in November 2020 at age 84. He held a variety of executive positions—including director of admission, head of minority affairs, and vice president of external affairs—during his 22 years at Illinois Tech. He came to the university in 1973 as the assistant director of co-op education, with a focus on recruiting and supporting students from underrepresented communities in STEM fields. His efforts led to a 433 percent increase in students from underrepresented communities in his first year alone.

The seeds of innovation

At the Illinois Tech site, the Budburst team aims to collect vital information on the timing of seasonal changes in plants, the evaluation of plants and pollinators, and the restoration of habitats for monarch butterflies through the Milkweeds and Monarchs project.

Members from across the Bronzeville and Illinois Tech communities come together at Nate Thomas Memorial Meadow as Budburst citizen scientists to help provide much-needed data to biological and ecological researchers. By snapping photos from their phones while using the Budburst app, community members submit their observations to Budburst’s international database, joining critical research on the impacts of climate change.