Local students complete ‘Life-Cycle’ trek offered through WCU’s Project Discovery Program
Eleven high school students from Western North Carolina had an opportunity to learn about biology and ecology this summer as they participated in “Life-Cycle,” a 200-mile exploration by bicycle offered through Western Carolina University’s Project Discovery-Talent Search Program.
Accompanied by adult chaperones, the students followed a route on the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Towpath from the Eastern Continental Divide at Cumberland, Md., to just outside Washington, D.C. Other bike paths then took the group right up to the Lincoln Memorial and other landmarks around the nation’s Capitol, said Todd Murdock, director of the WCU program.
Participating students were Blayne Ambler, Morgan Nichols and Seth Pyle from Andrews High School; Josh King and Zane Waddell from Erwin High School; Staci Knighton and Brandon Lee from Robbinsville High School; Shelby Reynolds and Josh Thomas from Madison County High School; and Michael Smith and Nate Southards from Swain County High School. In addition to Murdock, participants included program counselors Jessie Nosworthy and Cassie Dickson; Murdock’s wife, Therese Murdock, and the couple’s son, Griffin Murdock; and Karen Kandl, a faculty member in WCU’s Department of Biology who recently became associate director of the Highlands Biological Station.
The group left Cullowhee on a Monday in June and rode Amtrak from Greenville, S.C., to Washington, and then on to Cumberland. The 200 miles of riding on mountain bikes were spread out over a six-day period. “It was a big physical challenge for the students, but they all did well,” Todd Murdock said. “After a couple of days of getting used to it, they were good to go.”
The students spent about an hour each morning during the ride learning about amphibians, aquatic invertebrates, invasive plants and plant communities during lessons led by Kandl. “I asked the participants to compare plant and animal communities along the C&O towpath and to think about how and why these communities change along the towpath,” she said. “Over the course of the week, the students became better observers of nature. Just as we supported each other in the physical journey, we also gave confidence to each other as learners and scientists.”
Camping out each night and doing their own cooking, the students also visited historic sites during the journey, including Antietam National Battlefield, and discussed topics such as leadership, conflict resolution and decision-making, Murdock said. “I think the kids were amazed by how much fun they had and how well they got along, and they learned a lot, too,” he said.
The “Life-Cycle” trip was funded with a grant provided through The Conservation Fund, the Ford Foundation and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Nichols, a rising 10th grader at Andrews High, said she learned during the trip that an individual has to “keep on pedaling” when faced with the challenges of life. “North Carolina is very different compared to the rest of the world and I met so many culturally diverse people on our trip,” she said. “This trip taught me to go out and see the world because there are so many different places and people. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to go out and see just a little part of it.”
WCU’s Project Discovery-Talent Search Program is funded through the U.S. Department of Education, with the program staff working with 780 high school students in the region, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds. The WCU program provides academic, career and financial counseling and encourages the students to graduate from high school and enroll in and graduate from the institution of higher education of their choice. It also offers outdoor classrooms, evening and weekend activities, and summer enrichment opportunities such as the “Life-Cycle” trip.
For more information about WCU’s Project Discovery-Talent Search Program, contact Todd Murdock at 828-227-7137.