Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Students and passerby noticed boxes sitting under sycamore trees on Ho Plaza.

November 20, 2018

What Were the Mysterious Boxes on Ho Plaza?

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Since mid October, students walking through Ho Plaza have been wondering: “what’s with the boxes?” For weeks the cardboard sentinels sat in front of Willard Straight Hall silently collecting leaves, as if to invite passers-by to wonder idly about their purpose.

The boxes were in fact part of a class project by Rachel Qiao ’21 for NTRES 2100: Introductory Field Biology to study American Sycamores, the patchy-barked trees that line Ho Plaza and adorn much of campus.

In true college fashion, Qiao started her project with a bit of dumpster diving to acquire the boxes.

“They expect us to carry out this entire research project with money out of our pocket,” Qiao told The Sun. “Basically I was like I’m not going to spend money on this so I went dumpster diving with my friends. It was pitch black, it was sketchiest thing ever.”

The boxes were part of a research project for a field biology course.

Courtesy of Rachel Qiao '21

The boxes were part of a research project for a field biology course.

According to Qiao, the boxes inspired some unexpected attention and several inquiries from the student body.

“I’ve gotten so many emails over the past couple of weeks, and I think it’s just random students,” Qiao said. “I feel like people think that this is for some groundbreaking research study, even when I’m over there and people approach me people say ‘I thought this was some sort of social experiment.’”

Throughout the three weeks that Qiao’s boxes remained on campus, she was contacted by about five students inquiring about their purpose. According to Qiao, however, not all of the attention visited upon her research was harmless.

In addition to the boxes on Ho Plaza, Qiao also included a second set on North Campus between Mews and Court-Kay-Bauer to compare the leaf fall in different locations. They did not fare as well as their Central Campus counterparts.

“The first time I went back, two of the boxes were literally missing and I found them in the dumpster. I put rocks in them so they wouldn’t move from the wind, so it was obviously just people messing with them,” Qiao said.

Late on in the experiment, one of the North Campus boxes had been almost completely destroyed, Qiao said.

Even with the vandalism suspected by Qiao, she managed to collect enough data together for a final project, finding that the trees on Ho Plaza had different leaf fall patterns, likely due to water stress and poor quality soil, in Qiao’s estimation.

Qiao said initially she had no idea her project would generate the level of interest that she saw, and that it spoke to the inherent curiosity or Cornellians.

“At a place like Cornell, these students are actually interested in their surroundings and what’s going on. There’s just this inherent curiosity. Maybe some other campuses people wouldn’t even care.”