A Hands-On Approach to Appalachian Biodiversity

By: Mathew Roberts

Excursions deep into the mountains and hollers of western North Carolina are not often associated with interdisciplinary adventure and personal growth, or are they? This summer, Ohio University faculty and staff created a course titled “Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity.”

The course was designed with interaction as a core concept. Students began with a basic history of Appalachia, domestication of species and seeds, and how culinary inclusion works as the lifeblood for building biological diversity and forest economy. Then, students embarked on a three-day trip with James Veteto, professor at Western Carolina University and executive director of the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies. Veteto led the group through his North Carolina mountainside property, demonstrated the cultural diversity of his apple orchard, revealed time-honored Cherokee customs, and graciously fed the group with the fresh, local flavors of Southern Appalachia.

Appalachian culture has largely been built around poverty. Rugged forms of survival and community agriculture have been prevalent for decades, but these are now seen within the assemblage of naturalist appreciation.

“There is a certain humility and down-to-earthness necessary if you want to get anything done in the region,” Veteto wrote in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. While most class discussions focused on the history of farming, seed saving, and the cultural relevance of food, the greatest moments were spent reflecting about how these lessons can be applied to other issues as well.

Karly Strukamp, an undergraduate education student who took the summer course, will apply the knowledge gained on this trip to her work with middle school children.

“From this trip, I have gained confidence in facilitating these types of hands-on learning experiences,” she said. “When students are able to investigate what they are curious about, they are experiencing true learning.”

There also were more immediate lessons to be learned.

“We also were able to get to some of what us teachers like to call the ‘hidden curriculum,’” Strukamp said. “We were able to tell stories and invest time in our relationships — even with our teachers. At times, our teachers would acknowledge that we were actually teaching them something.”

Immersive learning and exploring one’s curiosity are inherent to this course. There is something beautiful about being right in the focal point of diversity’s potential.

“We were able to look at and touch the different plants and methods we were being introduced to rather than just seeing pictures in a book,” said Taylor Smith, another student who attended. “Environmental issues can be looked at from so many sides and it’s really great to have all those different views when you are talking about sustainable solutions.”

Going to the Appalachian Institute of Mountain Studies made us realize the lack of diversity in our hometowns. Upon return, many students spent the last two days of the course at Solid Ground Farm, a sustainable farm in Millfield dedicated to spreading knowledge about sustainable food and creating biodiverse forest gardens in the southeast Ohio. In addition to developing environmental solutions, spots like Solid Ground Farm are creating a new generation that values diversity. After the farm visit, students finished the course with a project or paper that incorporated the multi-disciplinary nature of the trip. As long as this program continues, Ohio University can be a part of instilling this critical value in future cadres of students.

 

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