August 25, 2014 at 9:00am

Living roof ecosystems, also known as "Green Roofs," have been increasing in popularity across the United States. The roofs help maintain a cleaner environment, add a living vegetation layer to an urban area, and are aesthetically pleasing.

Such positive attributes are why Millikin University student Jessica Kerr, a junior biology major from O'Fallon, Ill., and Dr. Judy Parrish, professor of biology, are finding the best technique for the construction and maintenance of a living roof ecosystem on the rooftop of Leighty-Tabor Science Center on Millikin's campus. The ecosystem research is part of Kerr's James Millikin Scholar (JMS) project.

"By adding a living roof ecosystem, we hope to bring a more environmentally friendly aspect to the Decatur community as a whole," said Kerr. "Living roof ecosystems are not only aesthetically pleasing, but they have shown in past research to aid many issues the world around us faces today."

As part of their research, Kerr and Dr. Parrish are conducting experiments with different heights of soil, ranging from four to 10 inches in height, and types of medium to find which is most efficient for growing a green roof.

Throughout the summer, Kerr and Dr. Parrish constructed six planting boxes and monitored the growth rates and characteristics of six species of native Illinois plants contained in the boxes. Along with testing the abilities of the plants, the pair hopes to determine a strategy for layer insulation on the roof.

"It's a project that we started researching back in January, and we are using a certified, lighter medium that is meant to go on a roof," said Kerr. "Each box also contains tomato, pea, and bean plants. It's nice to be able to compare and contrast."

According to Kerr and Dr. Parrish, green roofs also play a major role with storm water management, increasing biodiversity, and lowering costs in building maintenance.

"I've always enjoyed gardening, but there are so many benefits that come with a living roof," said Kerr. "Imagine having the opportunity to garden on the roof with produce, and teachers using the area for readings on genetics. This has been the most hands-on project I've ever taken part in. As a sophomore, when I first started the project, I had no expectations that I would ever be able to do something like this."

Dr. Parrish added, "I've been hoping to try to do something with the rooftop for quite some time, and I was excited that Jessica wanted to take on this project. Jessica has certainly taken the lead on this project and did a great job with developing all the necessary preliminary research."

With the addition of the living roof ecosystem on top of Leighty-Tabor Science Center, Kerr and Dr. Parrish also hope to create a safer habitat for the urban wildlife of central Illinois. The objective can be achieved by including a wide-range of plants and structures that can provide food and shelter for many birds and insects.

"The hope is to get as many people as possible interested in this project," said Dr. Parrish. "The roof is already used in a variety of ways with the green house and the observatory, and to build an ecosystem that can be beneficial in terms of research and beautification would be great."

With the data they've already collected, Kerr hopes to make the living roof ecosystem a larger project with additional funding through grants.