Landscape architecture students from the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences prepare to chart a course for their work on the Toyota Battery property in Liberty. A lake, natural areas and overlooks are all a part of the environmental education project, the students’ senior year project.

A 300-acre tract of woodland in Liberty, on the southwest corner of Toyota North Carolina’s battery manufacturing plant site, will soon take on new features as an environmental education forest, thanks to the talents of seven students from N.C. A&T’s landscape architecture program.

Under the direction of Professor Steve Rasmussen Cancian, the students will design, and build, a culturally-inclusive, environmentally friendly outdoor experience involving a trail system and a variety of outdoor educational environments. It might be called “Tranquility Trails.” Or, possibly, “Wild Wonderwoods.” Or maybe “Froggy Lagoon,” on part of the tract near Lake Dodson, which is on the property.

Sean Suggs, president of Toyota North Carolina, and members of his team visited the landscape architecture program in Carver Hall recently to hear their proposals for those student ideas and more, and see first-hand how their designs will mesh with Toyota’s goal of engaging children with nature while preserving nature.

He left impressed.

“Un-be-freakin’-lieveable,” Suggs told the seven student presenters. “I am blown away with the level of detail that you all have displayed. Your ‘thinking way’ and creativity are really impressive.”

The connection between the giant auto maker and the landscape architecture department began with a lucky meeting between Cancian and Michael Robinson, a senior engineering manager for Toyota North Carolina.

Robinson was interested in finding a way to engage children with nature while preserving nature on the giant site, and in creating opportunities for children to overcome the sedentary lifestyle.

Cancian’s senior class decided to take the project on, envisioning nature trails, overlooks, identification stops, even a floating platform for identifying fish.

Robinson steered the idea through its approval process and the students made their first “scouting” visit to the tract earlier this fall.

Robinson joined Suggs and two other Toyota employees, environmental engineer Natasha Montiel and engineering manager Darius Weatherford, who is also an Aggie alumnus, in the visit to the A&T program, where they asked questions and probed the students’ thinking during their presentations.

Sean Suggs, left, president of Toyota North Carolina, greets Shirley Hymon-Parker, interim dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, during his visit to the landscape architecture department.

“The overall goal of my design is to relieve stress,” said senior Carrington Light in explaining the name of her project, ‘Tranquility Trails.’ “In the woods, the stress of school can fade away as you feel the breeze, see the pattern of the sunlight through the trees, maybe read the IDs on the trees or make finds along the path.”

Brittany Angell envisioned areas within ‘Wild Wonderwoods’ where children could climb to elevated platforms, or learn in a garden classroom.

“I wanted it to be fun, an experience you can remember and take with you,” she said.

Ciara Knight’s designs took advantage of the natural wetland on the property, including a butterfly garden and plant identification.

“Nature allows the mind to be employed without being fatigued,” she said. “Safe, social access to the outdoors is not something all kids have. It’s a form of environmental justice for them to feel that ‘nature has a place for me.’ “

The senior class will officially start work this spring at the 1,800-acre site, Toyota’ first dedicated to battery electric, plug-in hybrid and hybrid battery production.

“Now, what we need to do is go back and go, ‘Wow!’ and ‘Which one?’ and think about how we can consolidate or add,” Suggs told the students. “You all have set the foundation for us, now, to go back and say, ‘We can really make this happen.’ “

The environmental education forest is Toyota’s second investment in N.C. A&T. In September 2022, the company gave a $500,000 grant to the College of Education to foster science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education.