Interdisciplinary Innovations

With creativity and collaborations in unexpected places, UNC Asheville fuels innovators in every field.

This fall, first-year students at UNC Asheville read How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery by Kevin Ashton — a practical primer to help them prep for their first classes, undergraduate research projects, and future work. Little did they know that their classes would be filled with fellow innovators and instructors, from the faculty experts sharing new approaches and discoveries, to classmates flipping the kayaking world on its head.

Quick How-To Guide

Landon Ward holds a Black Ratsnake, a species native to Western North Carolina and to the UNC Asheville campus itself. Ward and Reynolds emphasize native diversity in their courses, encouraging students to learn about the fantastic diversity in the southern Appalachian Mountains.How to discover a species

Graham Reynolds might have dreamt of finding a new species of snake, but he probably didn’t expect to discover one in his sleep. That’s what happened to the UNC Asheville assistant professor of biology, then a Harvard postdoctoral fellow, one night during a research expedition to a remote corner of the Bahamian Archipelago. The silver, slithery species crossed his head while he slept—one of six animals that the research team documented during the trip, naming it the Silver Boa, Chilabothrus argentum. 

The silver boa is the first new species of boa discovered in situ in the Caribbean since the 1940s and brings the total known species of West Indian boas to 12. It is considered critically endangered and is one of the most endangered boa species globally.

“We found this species on its way to extinction, and now we have the opportunity to intervene on their behalf so that doesn’t happen,” said Reynolds, who led expeditions in 2014 and 2015, and now incorporates the research into his zoology classes and undergraduate research projects. “It’s a tangible example of what a species is, how we describe them, and how we define them.” 

That tangible process is present in other courses at UNC Asheville, from the Liberal Arts 178 course on reptiles and amphibians to environmental studies classes in Herpetology and Field Herpetology, taught by Instructor Landon Ward. He brings creatures into the classroom and leads two-week research-intensive courses every other year, where students search for snakes from North Carolina to the Florida Keys, with stops in each state along the way. 

“Snakes can be hard to find, but if you know where to look and how to look for them, it can be done. The easiest way to find snakes is to drive around looking for them, particularly after sunset when the roads are warm. That’s what we do in field herpetology,” said Ward. “We find a lot of reptiles. By the time it’s over, students have seen lots of different habitats and seen a lot of different species—and learn how to identify different species. They learn about invasive species and we talk about the ecology and how native species may be threatened.”

Reynolds echoes that approach, along with a little patience. “Snakes are always hard to find when you are actually looking for them—they are secretive and can remain very well hidden even when you are very close to them,” he said. “The best way to find snakes is to know where and when to look—which of course requires preparation ahead of time.”

Cherokee musician and storyteller  John Grant Jr. performed at the Farm-to-Table Dinner on the Quad. How to Learn an Indigenous Language

John “John John” Grant Jr. grew up with the Cherokee language around him, but it wasn’t until he was an adult that he started a quest to learn it – trying different methods from listening and retention to Total Physical Response and master/apprentice. What worked, and what’s now in classrooms at UNC Asheville, is a patented method called “Your Grandmother’s Cherokee.” Inventors Barbara Duncan, folklorist and education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and John “Bullet” Standingdeer, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), introduced this method at the first Indigenous Languages Summer Institute held June 1-2 at UNC Asheville. Duncan is teaching the first Cherokee language class at UNC Asheville this fall, WLANG 174 with
Gilliam Jackson, a native language speaker from EBCI. Twenty-five students are enrolled. 

Grant, who enrolled in classes before they were offered at UNC Asheville, compares the process to baby steps. Following a process laid out by Standingdeer and Duncan, students can master the long polysynthetic words that equal a sentence in English. These words include action, who’s doing it, how it’s happening, and more; until now they have been difficult to learn. Standingdeer and Duncan studied the patterns of the language with more than 10 years of research, and their analysis resulted in the “Grandmother Chart” and a “Who-to-Whom chart” that explain how all Cherokee words are made.

Duncan and Standingdeer describe “Your Grandmother’s Cherokee” as “a revolutionary way to understand the inherent logic and beauty of the Cherokee language.” It uses morphological analysis of Cherokee verbs, following ethnolinguistic categories, to show consistency and internal logic of the language, allowing it to be programmed with computer software. They obtained a patent in October 2015.

“This provides for us a base and an association, with understanding, that students need as second-language learners. Without it, they are walking in the dark,” said Standingdeer. “Students have to have something to build on.”

For Duncan, the idea comes naturally. “These are the opposite of foreign languages. These are the languages of this place. This language is grounded in where we are now,” she said. 

At UNC Asheville, if students take two semesters of Cherokee language, they not only build upon that knowledge, they also fulfill the university’s second language requirement, using established methods of instruction and the innovative approach. Students who are now taking beginning Cherokee with
Duncan and Jackson can enroll for the second level course in Spring 2017.

For Duncan, the idea comes naturally. “These are the opposite of foreign languages. These are the languages of this place. This language is grounded in where we are now,” she said.

The 2016 robot created by team GLITCH resulted in the Rookie All-Star Award.How to Build a Robot

At UNC Asheville, robot building is a team sport. “From a skills point of view, they are learning a lot of the same things, and that is how to work together,” said Neil Rosenberg, team mentor and lecturer in engineering at UNC Asheville, who’s now in his second year of leading FIRST Robotics, the program for high school students with a team now hosted at UNC Asheville. “There are so many people who come into a team like this thinking they can’t do it. They can’t cut. They can’t program. They can’t work together. But they discover in the context of a team like this, that they can do all of those things, and that they want to. They are effective at it.”

That’s why UNC Asheville’s inaugural team, GLITCH, or GLITCH 5854 to be precise, qualified to participate in the 2016 World Championship after earning the “Rookie All-Star Award” for the state of North Carolina. This fall, two members of the 30-plus member FIRST team, John Muse and Josh Lyons, graduated and are now enrolled in computer science and engineering at UNC Asheville. They also serve as mentors for teammates, providing perspective along with practical advice.

“My FIRST Robotics experience was a splendid one,” said Muse. “I learned that I wanted to pursue computer science for my future professional career life. But I think more
importantly I learned two valuable life skills: to know what success feels like and how to let things go when they don’t go in your favor.”

By choosing UNC Asheville, Lyons has stayed close to his family, both by living at home in Asheville and by continuing to work with FIRST. He now teaches a version of CAD software called SOLIDWORKS, which he learned just a little over a year ago in order to design and build a six-foot, 150-pound robot that can navigate rough terrain and shoot a ball through a hoop. 

Students become involved in robotics at younger ages too, with UNC Asheville hosting the Lego League for the first time this year. Students ages 9-13 build a robot, complete a research project and demonstrate core values in competition. To complete the family circle, their mentors come from the GLITCH Team. 

It’s a growing interest that Rosenberg has seen before, having coached FIRST for more than 14 years, starting with high school programs, “where the FIRST team was bigger than the football team.” He’s looking for the same kind of crowd when the competition returns to Kimmel Arena on campus in spring 2017, already calling for volunteers.

Rowan Stuart takes a turn during the roll sessions in the Student Recreation Center pool on campus. How to roll a kayak

Psychology major Rowan Stuart can demonstrate how to roll a kayak 17 times in 45 seconds. That’s the time for each of three rides during the World Championships in freestyle kayak. She was named Junior World Champion in the sport in 2013 and placed seventh in the women’s division in 2015. She’ll compete again in 2017, but for now, in her senior year of study at UNC Asheville, she calls her self retired (sort of).

On any given Wednesday, she’ll be in the pool helping other students learn how to roll a kayak, albeit at a much slower pace than her typical ride. 

“I say, ‘if they aren’t having fun, they shouldn’t be doing it,’” she says. “You don’t have to have been in a kayak before…. It’s really important to have fun with it.”

Stuart started paddling in fifth grade, won her first competition in 2010 and received her first sponsorship in 2011. What started as work with her dad at an outdoor center in her hometown of Bryson City grew into a group of like-minded peers who challenged her. Now she’s taken a leadership role, building from offering Kayak 101 to leading UNC Asheville’s Outdoor Leadership Training Program (OLTP) as part of her work with Campus Recreation. 

“Kayaking has taught me a lot about being a professional in a setting where all of my friends are. When you lead OLTP spring break, you are teaching your peers, but you are the authority and the voice of knowledge. It’s a good cross-over to the paddling world,” she said.

Crossing over might be one of the first skills to learn, and Stuart has more tricks, including a few of her favorites, like the 180-degree rotation called the McNasty and the cross-bow paddle stroke of the Phonics Monkey. 

“Kayaking has taught me a lot about being a professional in a setting where all of my friends are.”

She’s studied up for her classes too. The psychology major with a minor in biology and neuroscience has class, lab or office hours for her on-campus job from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then fits in crossfit, and by Fridays, she aims for the river. It’s the hard-earned result of a schedule with 8 a.m. classes every day. 

The goal is the Green Race, but she has something long-term in mind too: graduate school or nursing school is next on her busy schedule.