A love of wildlife and the outdoors led to one local college student’s environmentally-friendly idea to help children interact with nature.

Indiana University — Purdue University Columbus (IUPUC) senior Autumn Fox saw untapped potential in open, grass-filled plots of land on campus. That potential turned into the award-winning concept called EcoPatch, a sensory garden designed to engage all five senses — sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.

“Sensory gardens use plants to stimulate all the senses. That being said, I realized pretty quickly that the whole school could be involved because gardens like these can have much more than just plants,” said Fox, a biology major and Seymour resident.

After sharing her concept with IUPUC psychology professor Mark Jaime, Fox was encouraged to take it to the upcoming Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) JagStart competition.

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Sponsored by the IUPUI Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, the competition provides students with the chance to share their entrepreneurial solutions to social and economic issues.

Fox was happy she gave the March 3 competition a shot because EcoPatch was judged the best of 15 concepts presented and Fox was awarded the first-place prize of $2,500.

A key difference between Fox’s garden and a regular sensory garden is her intent to include paved walkways with plants and other components placed in raised beds, making the garden friendly for disabled children and community members.

“I want children and community members with disabilities to have ease of access to this area, which is something that many green spaces lack. I want everyone to be able to interact with the garden,” said Fox.

Other differences include “sensory aspects in the choice of plants and in the overall design, and a focus on making it an outdoor sensory classroom, rather than just a garden space, with directed integration of the garden design with pre-K through 12 educational standards across the curriculum,” said Barbara Jacobus, biology lecturer and biology program coordinator at IUPUC.

Fox lived in Brown County for a few years and said the area is near and dear to her heart. When she heard that a Brown County elementary school was interested in putting in a garden, she immediately got on board.

Currently, EcoPatch is in the design phase, Fox said, but she intends to put down roots for the sensory garden at Van Buren Elementary in Nashville — pending additional funds.

Fox has applied for a Home Depot grant for $5,000. Another grant Fox applied for worth $1,500 was, unfortunately, not approved, Fox said.

Fox said that she intends to do some additional fundraising.

Once built and all of the flora — a mix of native and nonnative plants — has been added, Van Buren Elementary will use the garden across its curriculum, said Mandy Austin, a third- and fourth-grade math teacher at Van Buren.

“Of course, it lends itself to teaching about plants for our science units, but it can be used by music and art classes to observe the natural environment and how it looks, sounds, feels and smells,” Austin said.

The possibilities are endless for the garden’s use, and math students may use it to record and measure the plant growth, Austin said.

After graduation, Fox hopes to get a job working for the Department of Natural Resources or a similar organization as a biologist or in related field.

“I truly enjoy being outside as well, so anything outdoors is great,” said Fox. “I am passionate about wildlife and the outdoor environment as a whole.”

Autumn Fox

Age: 26

Major/Minor: Biology/chemistry

Husband: Victor Fox

Mother: Melissa Benitez

Siblings: Maygen, 19; Zachary, 16; Anthony, 12.

Middle and high schools: Seymour Middle School and Seymour High School

Hobbies: Horseback riding, reading, attending car shows and events with husband and other outdoor activities.

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Kaitlyn Evener is an editorial assistant for The Republic. She can be reached at kevener@therepublic.com or 812-379-5633.