Please welcome guest author Wally Smith. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Originally from the north Georgia mountains, his work focuses on ways in which biodiversity science can be linked with ongoing efforts to develop economic opportunities in rural Appalachia, while preserving the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
When I first announced to colleagues that I was moving to the mountains of southwest Virginia several years ago to work as a biologist, I was met with skepticism about how I would take the move. “Are you sure?” a fellow graduate student asked. “That area is a little backwards, you know.”
As a lifelong Appalachian resident, I knew to take the question with a grain of salt. The perception of our region as uneducated, isolated, and hostile to new ideas is all too common in popular culture, and this trend often holds for the scientific community.
Many biologists like myself will spend entire careers at major research universities in urban centers far from the mountains, keeping rural portions of Appalachia seemingly foreign. Those of us who perform research in the region often visit only sporadically, with minimal interaction with residents, and few national science outreach initiatives venture into the mountains with educational programs.
Even those that do, like an innovative effort to bring science into rural classrooms by Durham, NC’s National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, are often summarized by media outlets as if they are conducting a trip to Mars. A 2011 writeup of this project in the Pacific Standard, for example, referred to the thought of taking outreach into rural communities as venturing “into the unknown.”
This historical gap between scientists and society in Appalachia has had a number of consequences for the mountains’ natural and cultural heritage. Appalachian schools, ignored by many outreach initiatives and constrained by tight budgets, often struggle to match national standards for science achievement. This isn’t to say that Appalachian educators’ methods are not effective, of course – the region has some of the most dedicated and outstanding education programs I’ve known – but teaching science becomes exponentially more difficult when expensive technologies, culturally-relevant curricula, and knowledgeable experts are out of reach.
Further still, false perceptions of Appalachia as a hostile, isolated region have historically hindered our understanding of the mountains’ wildlife.
While ecosystems near major recreation areas and population centers have been heavily sampled by biologists, more isolated areas – many again overlooked by those uncomfortable or just unfamiliar with rural communities – are still mostly a glaring hole in our scientific understanding.
This leaves us with a laundry list of unanswered questions, ones that become all the more pressing when one considers that Appalachia is a hotspot of diversity for wildlife like salamanders, fishes, and freshwater mussels (among other groups). Where do these organisms live in Appalachia? What habitats do they prefer? How do they respond to human-driven change?
In the fall of 2012, a group of students in my laboratory at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise decided to aim for this “holy grail” of bettering our understanding of biodiversity in the mountains, while bridging the ever-present gap between scientists and the people who call our mountains home. These students were a mix of local residents of rural southwest Virginia and those from more suburban areas near eastern portions of the state, but the questions they addressed were the same. How, for example, can you link scientists and their research with residents who may live a day’s drive from the nearest major research lab or lecture hall?
Like any scientific question, we had to start with what we know. One of the first things our student group noticed was a body of research from the field of cultural cognition, a growing field in the social sciences that examines how individuals perceive and interpret scientific information. One of the most striking finds from this research in recent years was that rural residents, like many found across Appalachia, are best engaged with new scientific material when it is presented in a way that ties into an existing cultural background.
In other words, it might be best to teach ecology to Appalachian students using wildlife from their own backyards than it would be to do so using species from a tropical rainforest. Looking more locally, we had information from our own area that these examples of “big” scientific concepts were in high demand: a survey of southwest Virginia educators conducted in part through our lab found that over half of those surveyed strongly agreed that local case studies were greatly needed to improve science education.
After examining this research, the student group developed an idea. What if they crafted tools to introduce the topics that biologists research using local habitats and wildlife, all while encouraging Appalachian residents to become scientists and collect data of their own? The result was Southwest Virginia CSI (Citizen Science Initiative), a project designed to link Appalachian biodiversity with people across southwest Virginia and beyond.
The approach of Southwest Virginia CSI has been relatively simple. Appalachia is blessed with large amounts of public land that residents and visitors alike take advantage of for outdoor recreation, including hiking trails, lakes and rivers for paddling, and dispersed areas for hunting and fishing. The students first decided to harness these public lands as focal points for science education, developing digital interpretive guides to hiking trails that illustrate how local natural features relate to the scientific big picture.
For example, while a trailside wildflower may look beautiful and make for an excellent photograph, it also might form an outstanding example of relationships between plants and their pollinators, the delicate dance of co-evolution that drives the unique colors and structures we enjoy in the forest each spring and fall.
Since the project’s start in 2012, students have produced 13 of these digital guides to regional trails, all freely available through the Google Earth and EveryTrail smartphone applications. And since their inception, the guides have taken off. This set of guides alone has been viewed almost 70,000 times, bringing scientific research directly to rural residents through the lens of local wildlife. QR codes linking to the guides’ digital content have even been installed at a number of trailheads through partnerships with government agencies and local nonprofit groups.
That trailside wildflower mentioned above, though, may be more than just an educational tool. It might also be a sensitive or threatened species – one from a larger population that biologists don’t know exists. Our group has therefore partnered with iNaturalist, an online citizen science platform, to allow Appalachian residents and visitors to upload their photographs of regional wildlife to an online home that scientists worldwide can view and use.
The resulting group website, called Evolving Appalachia, allows users of our digital guides and others to contribute their own wildlife sightings that, if identified correctly and with enough information included, become real scientific data that are deposited alongside professional scientists’ collections worldwide.
For perhaps the first time, rural Appalachian residents can now learn about and contribute meaningfully to science without having to travel to a major university’s lecture hall or wait for scientists to come to them. In the two years since our project’s inception, over 3,000 observations have been recorded on iNaturalist through Evolving Appalachia, and many of the residents submitting observations have had the opportunity to network online with professional biologists to get feedback on how to identify a particularly confusing specimen. Out of these observations, several have actually led to publications in scientific journals, providing updates on species’ ranges, some found far from where they were thought to occur.
This year, our project continues to move forward. Our students have partnered with a local string band and Appalachian storyteller to produce narrated audio content for recreational paddlers through a local outfitter, and several communities have incorporated the students’ work into their tourism marketing packages. Just last month, we launched a new home for our content through a partnership with the Clinch River Valley Initiative, an award-winning effort to develop economic opportunities along southwest Virginia’s Clinch River – one of the most biodiverse rivers on the continent.
If anything, our iNaturalist project’s name, Evolving Appalachia, has had more meanings than one. Yes, we’re allowing citizens to contribute to the scientific understanding of how Appalachia has changed (and continues to change) biologically. But we’re also hopefully evolving perceptions of how science and scientists can interact with the region.
We have found overwhelming support and participation from local residents and none of the negative stereotypes that so often color the region, finding instead that Appalachia has a desire to learn about its natural heritage – and to share what we already know. In short, we’ve found an answer to that question I was asked so often when I first moved here: yes, we’re sure. Biologically speaking and otherwise, there’s no better place to call home.