In the Great Smoky Mountains, Madison High School senior Chloe Schneider discovered something she never knew before. The mountains are home to a rich variety of snail species – but, some of them are in severe trouble.
Ordinarily, knowing details about the state’s mollusk population serves as a random bit of trivia for a party game. But, for Schneider, this knowledge was critical. Nearly 50 percent of North Carolina’s snails are endangered, but the ones in the Great Smokies are losing ground thanks to environmental changes.
The Millenial Youth Led Expedition (MYLES) of Science program showed the Marshall, N.C. native why it’s important to understand the impacts on the snails’ ecosystem.
“We could really tell how the acid rain has affected the environment and, how if we continue to have acid rain and pollution in the environment, that things will only get worse. Snails won’t be able to live in those areas anymore,” said Schneider, describing the work of her six-person team. “It’s crazy to see how much impact we have and how what we release into the environment can affect other species.”
MYLES, a Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF)-supported initiative, introduces high school students to science along the Appalachian Trail. BWF funded MYLES in 2013 with a nearly $60,000, three-year grant to support up to 100 participating students. Over the past two years, according to Dottie Shuman, Ph.D., MYLES grant administrator, surveys conducted at the beginning and end of each week-long program show the program meets BWF’s goal of fostering an augmented interest in and knowledge of science.
During six week-long summer expeditions, she said, students work alongside college-student guides and National Park Service (NPS) rangers, learning protocols and collecting data about the Western N.C. mountains to support long-standing NPS research projects. Students can also present their findings at scientific conferences throughout the school year.
“These students are excited about real science – testing hypotheses and setting up data collection,” she said. “They come back with knowledge about the natural resources at our fingertips, and they’re excited about protecting them.”
And, students don’t leave the program empty-handed – they take some scientific equipment with them. They carry hand lenses and water-test kits home to continue their investigations on their own.
In addition, according to NPS ranger and MYLES program staffer Susan Sachs, program staff hope students will leave MYLES thinking of science as a viable career option.
“A lot of times when students think of science, they think of lab coats and being indoors,” Sachs said. “We want to show them how we use science to study and protect the parks.”
To meet this goal, students participate in on-going NPS research into snail and salamander habitats and the outside influences affecting them. The six-person teams are also encouraged to form their own research questions and hypotheses, but all data gathered contributes to the investigations that have been active for at least a decade, Sachs said.
For example, this past summer, several teams examined how acid rain has impacted the mountain’s snail and salamander populations. Air quality in the area has improved over the past 10 years, but damaging rains still fall with greater amounts hitting the higher elevations, she said. Teams gathered data about soil pH and species diversity, compared it to historical data, and analyzed whether said diversity has increased or decreased over time. They determined, Sachs said, that fewer salamanders now live in the more highly-acidic, upper elevations.
“We use student data to look at salamander health. We might not notice the decline in population if we didn’t have the data students collect,” she said. “This way, we can monitor how changes in moisture and climate change affect these amphibians.”
Frequently, students take their new-found knowledge back into the high school classroom. In fact, two-time participant and high school junior Jalen Ward said hands-on experience with forming hypotheses and analyzing data has been helpful in his advanced placement science classes at Fike High School in Taylor, N.C. But, more importantly, he said, it’s impacted his future plans.
“I’d like to major in biology and maybe be a wildlife biologist working with North Carolina’s wildlife,” he said. “I enjoy the outdoors, so working with nature would be a way to do for a living what I already love to do.”
It’s that type of insight into the value of science as a career and forward-thinking that makes the MYLES program so important, Sachs said. It doesn’t take long for students to develop a deep appreciation for the significance of outdoor science and the opportunities for investigations it presents.
“After this program, science isn’t just something they learn in school. There’s a real value to it,” she said. “A lot students think we do a study and have answers. But, they learn that questions often only lead to more – and better questions.”