Cherokee students join scientists for environmental research

Cherokee Middle School students have been getting a dose of hands-on science in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this summer.

Students in the Cherokee Science Investigation camp highlighted some of the exciting biological research that is occurring in the Smokies. The camp allows students to work with park rangers and researchers in the park.

Students got an up-close look at songbirds with a graduate student at North Carolina State University studying mercury contamination in birds.

Another day was spent with a professor at Warren Wilson College studying microscopic creatures that live in moss and lichens. The students designed their own experiments to see how the organisms reacted to “acid rain” simulated by mixing vinegar and water. The organisms died when pH levels dropped below 3, a level occasionally seen at high elevations in the Smokies.

Students also spent a day focusing on Cherokee culture with a graduate student at Western Carolina University studying why some restoration plots of native river cane are successful and why some aren’t. The students assisted in studying soil characteristics and taking measurements of river cane in two different locations. River cane is widely used to weave some traditional types of Cherokee baskets but has become less common due to development.

Students learned how to make rope using dogbane provided by Dr. David Cozzo, an ethnobotanist who works with the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources, operated through the Cherokee Studies Department at Western Carolina University.

Students also snorkeled in the Oconaluftee River looking for hellbender salamanders. There has been concern about the reproductive success of hellbenders in the Oconaluftee, so students also examined fish and aquatic insect populations with Park Service biologists and tested the river’s chemical properties.

Another session of the Cherokee Science Investigations program will be held during the school year with monthly Saturday academies sponsored in part by the Gear Up program of Jackson and Swain County. Students must be enrolled at Cherokee Middle School.

For more information, call Kayla Rutkosky at 828.497.4888 at the Cherokee Middle School. Both the summer and school year programs are funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund through a grant provided to the Cherokee Central Schools.

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