Campus as a Living Lab

Universities are unique hubs of learning both in the classroom and in the community. We have a wealth of academic expertise, access to innovative interdisciplinary collaborations, and a broad range of campus operations and landscapes. This special set of characteristics provides exceptional opportunities to research, test and implement innovations and initiatives that provide learning opportunities for students and contribute to sustainability goals. Living Lab projects create cohesion between academic and operational aspects of a university, leading to a more integrated campus environment.

Western's Campus as a Living Lab (CLL) program brings together collaborations of faculty, staff, students and community partners across a range of scales. CLL supports biodiversity conservation, visual arts, land restoration and improved energy systems, among other research and project areas.

Our campus is situated within the Carolinian Life Zone, and ecological region extending from Windsor to Toronto which has the greatest biodiversity in all of Canada. The Deshkan Ziibi (Thames River) flows through our grounds and is home to numerous species, including species at risk like the spiny softshell turtle. In addition, Western borders the Medway Valley Heritage Forest environmentally significant area (ESA). We have many environmentally significant features at Western to learn from in conjunction with classroom learning.

CLL supports our community in learning from the land that we are situated upon and the diverse perspectives that make up our community.

Living Lab Projects

Bee Yard at Western University

The Bee Yard at Western University is led by Dr. Natasha Mhatre and Post Doctoral Fellow Sajesh Vijayan in the Departmemt of Biology and is located in a remote part of campus. The project will study dance communication in honeybee collectives. When honeybees leave an established colony and move on to another location, they gather in groups and communicate with each other using waggle dances. Bees sense these dances via the sounds and vibrations they make, but the message could get lost in the noise of the crowd. This project will investigate the technique the bees use to hear each other even in these busy and active groups.

Biodiversity Inventory at Western

Students in forest looking at a plant for Biodiversity InventoryThe Biodiversity Inventory at Western is led by an organizing committee of volunteers in the Faculty of Science with academic advisor Dr. Tim Hain. The project seeks to study the biodiversity that exists today on campus grounds. In the first year of the inventory project there were over 1,100 unique species identified on campus!

The project is now heading into its second year and all members of the campus community are invited to participate by contributing photos and other observations to community science using iNaturalist. Learn more about the project and how you can get involved on the Biodiversity Inventory website.

Combining physics-based models with AI and machine learning for building energy modelling

Combining physics-based models with AI and machine learning for building energy modelling is led by Dr. Kamran Siddiqui and Dr. Katarina Grolinger in the Faculty of Engineering. One way of modelling building energy consumption is by using physics-based models such as EnergyPlus. These models simulate the processes of building energy exchange to arrive at the estimates of energy consumption and associated costs, GHG emissions, and other parameters. Creating physic-based models requires information about building physical characteristics such as size and shape possibly from CAD drawings, isolation, roof type, equipment, occupancy, and many others. While not all details are necessary for creating such models, more detailed information leads to better models. Nevertheless, these models do not take into consideration how people use the building (behavioral patterns): it has been reported that this can lead to up to 2.5 times higher energy consumption.

In contrast, modelling based on AI and machine learning (ML), does not require detailed information about the building but takes advantage of past energy consumption data to create the energy model and estimate future energy consumption. While AL/ML models are excellent in predicting future energy consumption for existing buildings, they are not applicable for new buildings without historical consumption data and fail when major retrofits are introduced.

Therefore, this project aims to integrate physics-based models with AI/ML models to advance building energy modelling. By combining these systems, the project will enable improved energy models incorporating energy consumption patterns while also supporting the exploration of what-if scenarios for estimating consumption under changing conditions. Using Western buildings for this modelling will enable a better understanding of energy consumption in those buildings and create opportunities for improvements.

Community Field Course in Land Healing and Responsibility

This project is part of an Indigenous Studies/Geography course "IS4023/GEO3001F; A Field Course in Land Healing and Responsibility" co-taught by Dr. Desmond Moser and Clint Jacobs and is supported by a 2021 Indigenous Learning Fund grant from Western's Office of Indigenous Initiatives.

The project will engage in passive (observational) and active (land modification) types of academic engagement. Observational work will focus on mapping and monitoring the state and seasonable variations of the site including vegetation, soil types, insect populations, animal, reptile, and bird identification, and acoustics (soundscapes). Active land modification will be small-scale and iterative, varying according to what is learned from mapping and monitoring. The overarching aim will be to re-establish native vegetation with an emphasis on pollinator-friendly species, improve habitat for species at risk, and communicate the nature and purpose of these activities, and their value, to the community. Through such learning and land-healing activities it is hoped that students will develop connections and responsibility to land.

Environmental and corrosion effects of road de-icing salts

Snowy research site testing corrosion of de-icing saltsLed by Dr. Yolanda Hedberg and Dr. Christopher Power, this project is part of a larger project being completed by the principal investigators in collaboration with an industry partner (Cypher Environmental Ltd.). The research project is very timely and expected to have significant industrial impact by providing a comprehensive assessment of both traditional and newer road de-icing salts in terms of their ice-melting performance, and environmental and corrosion effects. The 2-year project (July 2022 to June 2024) is being funded through a joint NSERC Alliance-Mitacs Accelerate research grant.

FOGs Pollinator Garden

Monarch Butterfly on native plant at the Pollinator Garden.The FOGs Pollinator Garden is led by Friends of the Gardens (FOGs) volunteers representing students, staff and faculty from a cross-section of campus departments along with academic advisors Dr. Greg Thorn and Dr. Nina Zitani. 

Since 1995, FOGs volunteers have been taking care of the St. Mary's Cement Rock Garden, located southeast of the Biology and Geological Sciences Building on campus. In 2022 FOGs implemented the first Pollinator Garden on campus with support from Facilities Management. In the first year the garden covered 800 square feet, and is expanding an additional 1,250 square feet in 2023 with the support of many volunteers.

The garden is located in Middlesex Parking Lot, behind Middlesex College. Be sure to take a visit and see many types of pollinators throughout the season!

Anyone interested in starting their own pollinator garden supportive of native biodiversity is encouraged to utilize this Pollinator Garden Plant List which provides important information such as the scientific names and native status of all the plants currently in the Pollinator Garden.

Improved multi-scale GHG emissions modelling from urban environments to enhance mitigation strategies

This project is led by Dr. Kamran Siddiqui (Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering) and Dr. James Voogt (Department of Geography and Environment). The initiatives of this project are part of a multi-million dollar project at Western called "Improved multi-scale greenhouse gas emissions modelling from urban environments to enhance mitigation strategies" that has received funding from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) through the Climate Action and Awareness Fund (CAAF).

As part of the CAAF, Western building performance metrics will be analyzed toward improving building modelling. The CAAF researchers are developing the comprehensive urban physics model: Vertical City Weather Generator (VCWG) model which requires ground truth "building performance data" for its validation, parameterization, and refinement.

The second part of this project involves monitoring the PV solar array on Amit Chakma Engineering Building and the roof's microclimate for building energy model evaluation. The CAAF project is looking at the impacts of green roofs and PV array roofs on both the atmosphere above and building below. The ACEB provides a campus example of a building equipped with PV array that would provide a good test case for evaluating numerical models.

Invasive Species Management: Buckthorn removal in the Huron Fields

Forested area with students working in the backgroundThis project, led by Dr. Paul Mensink, engages students in the Masters of Environment and Sustainability (MES) program in the management of buckthorn on campus, in collaboration with Landscape Services. Buckthorn is an invasive species that poses severe threats to local ecosystems by outcompeting native plants, disrupting wildlife habitats, and altering soil chemistry.

To address these issues, this project is a systemic initiative to document buckthorn's spread around campus, placing special emphasis on areas where buckthorn is predominant to ensure prompt action. It is an invaluable hands-on experience for MES students, tasking them with data collection, species identification, and the physical removal of buckthorn in the area. This work aims to rejuvenate the university's native woodland ecosystem and also enrich our students' educational experience.

Pheromone Traps for Collection of Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

This project, led by Dr. Brent Sinclair, and PhD student Mikaelison Lima, studies the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug [(BMSB), Halyomorpha halys, (Hemiptera: Pentatomidae)], an invasive species of true bug originating from southeast Asia. It is a polyphagous insect pest of high economic importance in North America as it is a pest of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, apples, peaches, peppers, beans, and corn (Xu et al. 2013; Rice et al. 2014; Haye et al. 2015). This project aims to set up pheromone traps on campus to collect BMSB throughout the spring, summer, and fall. The insects will be collected for colony establishment in the laboratory.

Software Engineering Lab - 5G Empowered Predictive Maintenance

This project, led by Dr. Miriam Capretz through the Software Engineering Lab at Western Engineering, is a collaboration with Western's Power Plant for a data-driven predictive maintenance model. Predictive Maintenance (PdM) is set to detect early symptoms that may cause defects in assets. Visual inspections and sensor information are crucial in comprehensively identifying and predicting abnormal operations and equipment downtimes within the PdM paradigm. The research aims to develop a Data-Driven Predictive Maintenance Framework to monitor assets and generate information that can help guide decision-making on critical assets' maintenance activities and useful life. Therefore, real-time images, data from sensors regarding the assets' operation, and machine learning-based reasoning can help substitute human inspection. 

Completed Projects

Barn Swallow Breeding and Nesting Structure

Barn swallow structure constructed in natural area of campus. Made mostly of wood, on stilts. It looks like a small barn.The Barn Swallow Structure was constructed Fall 2022 with the leadership of a Biology PhD student, academic advisor Dr. Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, and support from WWF-Canada, University Students' Council, the Society of Graduate Students, the Advanced Facility for Avian Research, and Bird Friendly London/Nature London. 

Barn Swallows are a bird Species at Risk in Ontario whose numbers have declined in recent years, partly due to habitat loss. These birds rely on specific types of structures (like barns) to host their nests. Barn Swallows occur in high abundance at Western because of the habitat available here including wetlands, grasslands, old growth forest and the Medway Valley Heritage Forest ESA. Each year many Barn Swallows return to campus and construct nests on buildings adjacent to these natural features; which can put the birds in conflict with high-pedestrian traffic and maintenance work, reducing their breeding success.

The Barn Swallow Structure provides an alternate location for Barn Swallows to breed on campus, in a low-traffic location with natural features they need to survive (e.g. insects, mud). The structure was built in a naturalized part of campus to increase breeding success for the birds; if you do come across the structure, please do not approach too closely to respect the birds' space. In future this project will monitor Barn Swallows' usage of the structure, breeding success, and effectiveness of the construction features of this structure to help inform best practices on effective design standards for Barn Swallow Breeding Structures.

Case Study: Ecosystem Management (BIO 3222G)

This project will run from January through April 2024, using the Baldwin Flats and Fram Lands as a case study in the course Biology 3222G with Dr. Rob Buchkowski.

Students will analyze existing data on the site available online and provided by Facilities Management, and will also visit the site to observe the results of ongoing management and current species composition. Students in the class will develop short management plans recommending interventions relevant to meeting specified goals.

Collaboration and Connectedness in a Community Garden

This study, led by Dr. Lesley Gittings with student co-investigators from the Faculty of Health Sciences, will focus on the campus community garden with a primary method of interviewing both past and present community garden participants.

Our research goal is to delve into the perceptions and experiences of individuals concerning the campus-based community garden. By understanding factors that drive or deter their involvement, we aim to illuminate the influence of the garden on their connection to nature, efficacy in sparking positive change, and overall well-being. Moreover, we will uncover benefits of participating in a community garden, including improved food security, heightened environmental awareness, and enhanced emotional well-being. In essence, we're exploring the campus community garden as a multi-dimensional, nature-based health intervention that holds potential benefits for both individuals and the broader environment.

Community Garden Art Installation

Painted sign installed at community garden with flowering cactus, pink background, and text reading we are not alone.The Community Garden Art Installation project was completed as a class project in Dr. Amanda White's course Visualizing Foodways: Art+Food Relational Approaches. Students in the course were inspired by suggestions presented in their course reading, How to grow liveable worlds: Ten (not-so-easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene by anthropology scholar Natasha Myers. Signage around the Community Garden adds brightness during the grey winter days with the hope of prompting Western community members to consider their relationships with food and the land.

The class included a mix of undergraduate and graduate students who collaborated on the ideation and implementation of the art installation at the garden. In addition to the physical signage, the students also created a participatory webpage about the project. Along with their experience and intentions with the project, they also present featured food plant submissions from the campus community with stories about the significance of the food plants.

Investigation of migratory behaviour in North American hoverflies (Syrphidae)

This research project is led by a team in the Department of Biology with academic advisors Jackson Kusack and Dr. Keith Hobson. Hoverflies are important pollinators across all ecosystems in North America. They also provide pest control as the larval stage of some species predate aphids, thrips, and other pest insects. Despite their importance, very little is known about the movements of hoverflies in North America, outside of anecdotal information. This project is investigating migratory vs. locally emergent origin for five species of hoverflies that show evidence of seasonal range potentially indicative of migratory movements.

Live Stake Planting for Climate Resiliency

Volunteers along bank of Medway Creek hammering live stake trees into the water's edgeThis project is led by a team of students with interdisciplinary faculty support and academic advisors Dr. Tom Cull and Dr. Sandra Smeltzer alongside community partner, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA). It is also funded by a Thinking Globally Acting Locally grant.

Climate change continues to increase severe weather, including flooding. The Thames River (Deshkan Ziibi) connects the City of London and Western University with nearby First Nations: Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Munsee-Delaware Nation and Oneida Nation of the Thames. The resilience of this river and watershed affects all of us. This project aims to improve the ecological health of the river, mitigate increased flooding risk, and build relationships with communities within the river watershed. This will be done by planting native trees and shrubs to increase ecological health, help mitigate against future flooding, and educational initiatives both locally and globally on this type of river restoration.

A simple bioengineering technique that is often practiced for riparian restoration projects is called live stake planting, in which cuttings are taken from live trees, pruned of branches, sharpened at the base and inserted into the soil along waterways at sufficient depths for roots to reach groundwater. This project planted about 75 native tree live stakes along Medway Creek behind Westminster Hall in an area prone to flooding. Further from the water's edge around 200 native shrubs were planted, adding to the ecological health of the river environment and flood mitigation. 

Learn more about this project on the UTRCA website.

Maple Syruping for Biology 2217B

This project is led by Dr. Ben Rubin to demonstrate the process of making maple syrup in the course lab for his Biology 2217B class. The project includes tapping a few select trees on campus to collect sap. Sap will be brought to the course lab to make into maple syrup with the class.

How to Get Involved

Living Lab projects can take place anywhere within Western's main campus property boundary. Projects can be land-based or interacting with the built environment and operations of the university. The green areas in the map below represent Western's main campus property.

To get started, send us an email at with your CLL idea! (It's that simple). We will then work together to define the collaboration and the roles of individuals or groups involved. We look forward to hearing from you!

Western main campus boundary map