January 18, 2023

Folklore says that moss always grows on the north side of the tree, but is this phenomenon true within Appalachian forests?  As you ascend a mountain, will the number of tree species increase or decrease?  These are some of the questions that a group of high school students were inspired to ask during their backpacking trek this past summer as part of the inaugural “Girls on outdoor Adventure for Leadership and Science (GALS) Southwest Virginia (SWVA)” program

GALS was founded by a group of graduate students from Duke University in 2016, and is a free summer program for high school students to engage with science while overnight camping and backpacking through the wilderness. It was created to increase hands-on opportunities for students who identify as female or gender nonconforming, students of color, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and other groups underrepresented in fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). After the successful first GALS season in North Carolina, the idea quickly expanded to include programs in a handful of states across the US and the Southwest Virginia program ran for the first time in 2022. 

Spearheading the formation of GALS SWVA was a team of Virginia Tech (VT) graduate students, many of whom are PhD Fellows or alumni of the Interfaces of Global Change (IGC) Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGEP), co-administered by the Global Change Center, Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and VT Graduate School. Their collaborative fundraising and extensive planning efforts led to a free, week-long trip this past summer for female high school students to learn about science hands-on while backpacking through the wilderness along the Appalachian Trail. 

Six high school seniors spanning hometowns from all corners of the state participated in the first GALS SWVA program. A few of the young women had backpacking experience, but less knowledge about themes in ecology or how to conduct research and data collection in the field. While spending three days and three nights hiking and camping in the Mount Rogers area in Southwest Virginia, the group used the outdoor classroom to explore scientific concepts, gain hands-on environmental investigation experience, and build leadership skills and confidence through small group activities and discussions. 

“When the graduate student leaders first came to me with the early concept for bringing GALS to Virginia , I was blown away by their leadership and determination to make their vision a reality,” said William Hopkins, director of the Global Change Center, one of the major sponsors for the program.  “Taking youth into the woods for experiential learning is transformative, but requires an enormous amount of planning to include fundraising, student recruitment, and liability and safety considerations. This team of graduate students covered all the bases by working with organizations like 4-H, and as a result the trip was an enormous success.  I'm so proud of our graduate students.” 

The Trail Blazers

Chloe Moore, one of the lead organizers to launch GALS SWVA, is a Ph.D. candidate studying biodiversity and landscape genomics of amphibians in the department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science at VT.  Having some experience leading introductory backpacking programs in California, Moore learned about GALS from a talk given by one of the founding members during a Society of Freshwater Sciences Conference in 2021. Not having grown up with many outdoor adventure experiences, Chloe says that she didn’t really discover backpacking until she got to college. “I was so inspired by the growth and confidence-building that I saw in the middle-school aged participants during the backpacking trip I helped lead in the Sierra Mountains years ago, and I wanted to help bring that opportunity to young people here in the Virginia wilderness.”

Leaning on the resources established by the GALS NC group, Chloe rallied a planning team for the new SWVA program that included VT graduate student colleagues Kristen Bretz, Jennifer Brousseau, Alaina Weinheimer, Whitney Woelmer, Malia Pownall, Sophie Drew, and undergraduate senior Lisa Tabor. Collectively, the group developed and honed skills for fundraising, trip and safety planning, outdoor classroom education and leadership development activities for youth, science communication, and outreach programming.

Building connections for funding and logistical partners was a welcomed challenge for the inaugural program. Bretz, a Ph.D. candidate and stream ecologist in the department of Biological Sciences, reached out to local contacts in the Blacksburg Junior Women’s Club and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Both groups were enthusiastic about the chance to support girls’ and underserved communities’ access to outdoor adventure in Virginia. “This was such a unique opportunity for me to support young women gaining some of the outdoor experiences that were incredibly important to me growing up and to share my love of the Appalachian mountains as the world’s best playground”, said Bretz. “It was also hugely valuable to get experience writing grants for a different purpose than we often do as researchers. The chance to interact with our incredible funding partners helped me put into practice some of the interdisciplinary skills I have learned at VT.”

Brousseau, a Ph.D. candidate studying human dimensions of wildlife and climate change adaptations in the department of Forest Resources and Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at VT, helped design the lesson plans and science activities for the young hikers. “After coordinating environmental education programs in Indonesia, it was exciting to adapt those lessons for SWVA forests and consider what we hoped participants would take away from this experience. The trip leaders did a great job balancing science learning with backpacking lessons and building in opportunities for the girls to pursue their interests,” she expressed. 

“We couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to go on this first trip”, said Moore. When asked about her favorite highlights from the adventure, there were two memories that came to mind. One was getting to see one of the students hold a frog for the first time. “She was so excited and happy, and was inspired to focus her field project on salamanders and micro-habitats.” Chloe also reflected on a scene from atop Mount Rogers, the highest elevation point in Virginia. “After waiting out a thunderstorm at camp, we ventured to an outcrop with an amazing sunset view and watched the storm roll out in the distance. It was beautiful, and we all sat together quietly for a while, enjoying the moment and appreciating the majesty. The girls really seemed to bond in friendship and camaraderie during the trip, and these moments felt very special”.

Undergraduate student Lisa Tabor was also on the planning team and a program leader during the hiking trip. “GALS was an unforgettable experience for me. I learned so much from everyone involved in the development of the program. After the trip, I felt grateful for each young woman who showed up and put in the hard work with us; the trip would not have been the same without each unique contribution.” Tabor will graduate with her B.S. in Biological Sciences in December. 

Passing of the Torch

At the program’s conclusion, the students presented their selected research question and field investigation during a poster session held in Fralin Hall on Virginia Tech’s campus. Families of the hikers and members of sponsoring organizations of GALS SWVA were invited to attend. “The girls went above and beyond for their posters. It was a highlight for me to learn more about their experiences and paths they hope to pursue in the future”, said Brousseau. In a post-trip feedback survey, the high school students reported that they learned what an “ecologist” does, how to collect field data and design a mini-experiment, and especially enjoyed getting to present their work in the form of a scientific poster at the program’s closing event on VT campus. 

GALS SW participant Sylvia MacNab always knew she wanted to pursue a science-related career and says she will continue to spend time outdoors exploring as she earns a college degree. “GALS was an extremely beneficial and overall fun experience. Before participating, I knew that I was interested in pursuing environmental science or biology, but after putting together my project and doing field work, it solidified my love for science and the fact that it is truly something I want to do as my career. By the end of the week, we had become a little family and it was exciting to see everyone’s project presentations. I learned tons of new things about science, ecology, the plants and animals in southwest Virginia, overall lending to a very rewarding experience.”
Student holding stream sampling equipment
GALS participant Sylvia poses with a D-frame kick net during a stream ecology lesson.

This inaugural GALS SWVA trip was a huge success and the groundwork has been laid for the program to continue and grow.  As the initial leaders prepare to graduate from their Ph.D. programs, they are searching for the next organizing team to take the reins and continue the program each summer.  Through the first year of organizing, they compiled resources for  supplies and logistical plans, made connections with community partners and organizations, and even secured funding commitment again from the Global Change Center. 

Reflecting on the future of the GALS, Tabor hopes that other students will find interest in the program and will advocate for it to continue for years to come. “I believe experiences that encourage curiosity, resilience, and friendship create a positive impact that can reverberate to the communities these women currently are active in and will be in the future.” 

“Taking on the opportunity to develop GALS SWVA helped me grow in so many ways, personally and professionally. I truly feel like I was able to spark new interest and understanding for the sciences and natural resources with the girls who participated in the program,” said Moore. 

With many of the biggest hurdles now addressed, the next group of leaders for the program will likely feel more freedom to plan the fun and creative parts of the trip, building off of the first year’s program and lessons.  Moore, Bretz, Brousseau and Tabor seek to pass the torch to the next organizers of GALS SWVA to keep the opportunity available to young women each summer.