Senior capstone project Prompt for the Planet returns to Iowa City to inspire environmental change through art

In 2018, a UI senior chose to do her capstone project on raising awareness for the environment through art. Five years later, one non-profit organization formed, and an inaugural poem later, Prompt for the Planet is starting its second chapter.


Grace Kreber

Tricia Windschitl the cofounder and director of the Lena Project a collaborator/sponsor of Prompt for the Planet poses for a portrait on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022.

Olivia Augustine, Arts Reporter

What started as a senior capstone project later birthed an Iowa City non-profit organization dedicated to motivating environmental change.

Tricia Windschitl, co-founder and director of the Lessen, Empower, Notice, Act (LENA) Project, decided it was time to reopen the project that started it all as Prompt for the Planet returns to Iowa City.

“Prompt for the Planet, Chapter 2” came out of the gate with new workshops and events that promote environmentalism through the lens of art. Their next event, “Prompt of the Planet: Community Creates,” will take place at the Englert Theater on Sept. 11.

Prompt for the Planet began in 2018 when University of Iowa senior Shannon Nolan chose a capstone project about the intersection of art and environmentalism. For her capstone, Nolan asked students to reflect on the Earth’s condition. Her professor, David Gould, fell in love with the idea.

Gould said Nolan “had a glass-half-full approach” to a very serious problem. While many students had successful and important capstone projects in the class, something about Nolan’s dedication to the cause was unmatched.

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“What made Shannon’s [capstone project] unique was that she was really targeting the masses,” he said. She was trying to create a brush fire — part of it was education, part of it was information, part of it was helping people to see the dangers that she saw — but her objective was to get them to jump into the bus and come along with her.”

To write the prompt for the project, Gould connected Nolan to Amanda Gorman. Gorman was a 19-year-old Harvard student at the time and was the first Youth Poet Laureate at 16. She later went on to become the youngest inaugural poet. Gorman’s prompt gets at the heart of Prompt for the Planet:

“Think of one element and speak in its voice through pictures and words,” Gorman wrote in the prompt. “Think of it as creating an open letter from the planet.”

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Nolan and Gould worked with UI students and engaged with the Iowa City community, catching the eye of Tricia Windschitl, the director of Preucil Preschool.

Windschitl’s preschool class focused on the trees in their playground and what stories they would tell if they had a voice, so she said Nolan’s project fit well into their curriculum. She invited Nolan and Gould to her school to discuss the prompt with her 30 students — the youngest to interact with Gorman’s prompt.

Nolan and Gould frequently visited the preschool, and the semester ended after a successful showcase with art, music, and a poetry reading of Gorman’s response to the prompt.

Prompt for the Planet appeared to end, but Windschitl and her students were still entranced by the project. The kids continued to ponder how to “help the Earth be the best Earth.”

“It really moved them in a way I didn’t realize on that day,” Windschitl said. “But when we came back to school the following week, I just noticed these little homemade signs that they were making and putting up on our wall with plastic bags and straws with an ‘X’ through it, saying ‘don’t use these.’”

The first chapter of Prompt for the Planet may have ended, but Windschitl wasn’t ready to close the book. She started The LENA Project — named after a turtle illustrated by one of the children — to keep environmental awareness alive in Iowa City.

In the five years since the LENA Project began, Windschitl has worked to bring environmentalism to preschoolers, UI students, and every other member of the Iowa City community.

One of their most notable projects was the “Strawless Initiative,” where the children asked local businesses to stop using plastic straws and raised awareness throughout the community.

Though the LENA Project has taken off, it seemed Prompt for the Planet had seen its end. That was until President Biden’s 2021 inauguration when Gorman read her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” With so many people researching Gorman online, her prompt resurfaced, and responses from all over the country started flooding into Gould’s mailbox.

A specific response from a nine-year-old girl from the East Coast stuck in the minds of both Windschitl and Gould, and they couldn’t stand the idea of kids like her not being able to get involved in this way.

“It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s the next Amanda Gorman. It was unbelievable,” Gould said about the girl’s poem.

With this in mind, Windschitl decided it was time to turn to the next page of the LENA Project: Prompt for the Planet, Chapter 2.

For the revival of Prompt for the Planet, the LENA Project partnered with PromptPress to put on events and workshops. PromptPress is an arts journal based in Iowa City that routinely prompts different questions for artistic responses.

Windschitl chose to collaborate with PromptPress because of their similar approach to hot topics through questions and art.

“PromptPress has been trying to bring on more socially engaged projects, so we were thrilled to join this team,” Jennifer Coville, the founding and fiction editor of PromptPress, wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. “Our mission has always been to produce collaborations across artistic genres, so that has stayed the same. For this project, we are excited to add a central socially important theme.”

Prompt for the Planet: Community Creates will take place at the Englert on Sept. 11. Coville wrote that the event will be an “eco-cabaret.”

Not only will nine local performers respond to a collection of Prompts by PromptPress, but UI dancers will also be at the event. Local musicians including James Tutson, Abbie Sawyer, and the Family Fold Machine, and writers including Chris Merril, Donika Kelly, and Caleb Rainey will perform at the variety show.

John Schickedanz, the Englert’s executive director, wrote in an email to the DI that once he learned of Prompt for the Planet, he immediately knew it was something that belonged in the Englert’s space.

Similar to how Prompt for the Planet fits into PromptPress’ mission, the project aligns with the mission of the Englert as well. Schickedanz wrote that it exemplifies how art can “force us to think critically about our current world,” while also inspiring change within the community.

“Artists have long investigated and fought climate change through their craft,” Schickedanz wrote. “This project has done an amazing job of bringing so many community members together to allow us to investigate climate change collectively.”