Appalachian Trail Conservancy to host summer conference at WCU


Backpackers, get ready! The Appalachian Trail Conservancy will hold its biennial meeting July 19-26 on the campus of Western Carolina University. Conference participants will have opportunities to hike, raft, tube, bike and tour throughout the region. Workshop topics include cultural heritage, the environment, hiking and backpacking skills, natural wonders, trail management and developing volunteer leadership.

“ATC chose WCU because of its excellent facilities and its proximity to the Appalachian Trail and other hiking trails. The campus offers everything we need for a successful conference,” said Lenny Bernstein, an event organizer.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy was formed in 1925 to preserve and manage the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. Approximately 1,000 people are expected to attend the conference, Bernstein said. The ATC last hosted its biennial meeting at WCU in 1981.

The event will include 66 different hikes, including more than 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Other excursions include rafting and tubing on the Nantahala and Tuckaseigee rivers, biking in the Tsali Recreation Area and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and tours of Cherokee, Asheville and the Biltmore Estate.

During the conference, WCU faculty members Maridy Troy, assistant professor in the health and physical education program, and Maurice Phipps, professor of parks and recreation management, will present a workshop on their “energy mile” research. The energy mile theory, first proposed by the late mountaineering and outdoor education legend Paul Petzoldt, calculates the energy required to walk one mile on flat terrain as an “energy mile” and estimates every 1,000 feet of elevation gain equaling two energy miles. Therefore, a person hiking one mile and ascending 1,000 feet would use the equivalent of three energy miles. The theory was tested for the first time by Troy and Phipps in a WCU exercise lab.

Evening entertainment, beginning at 8 p.m., is open to the public with a $7 admission fee. On the schedule: contra dancing and a presentation on setting the A.T. speed record, July 21; Southern folk music from Southern Exposure and a presentation on hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, July 22; bluegrass from Buncombe Turnpike and a presentation on the founding of the Florida Trail and the American Hiking Society, July 23; contemporary acoustic music by Joe Pye and a presentation on the Benton MacKaye Trail, July 24; and storytelling by Eddie Swimmer of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, July 25.

Registration for the event begins April 15. For more information, go to


Astronomer’s book combines mythology, modern astrophysics

Paul Heckert

Paul Heckert is author of the newly released book “The Hunter and the Scorpion.”

WCU astronomy professor Paul A. Heckert learned to pick out the constellation Orion in the vast tapestry of the starry nighttime sky when he was 10 years old and growing up in Salisbury. Nearly 50 years later, Heckert has written a book that combines the ancient mythology surrounding Orion and its cosmic partner, the constellation Scorpius, and the tenets of modern astrophysics. Available on Amazon Kindle, “The Hunter and the Scorpion” was written with a popular audience in mind, he said.

In mythological lore, Scorpius, the Scorpion, pursues Orion, the Hunter, as they roam across the sky. Heckert’s book begins with the tale of those constellations and then transitions to the science behind the life cycle of the stars. “Eventually, I build up to the idea that the atoms in our bodies were manufactured by stars,” he said. “Everything around us that’s not hydrogen or helium had to be manufactured in the stars.”

Heckert said he hopes the book’s integration of mythology and modern science will appeal to readers who would not ordinarily have an interest in astronomy. His goal in writing the book was “to help readers grasp abstract astrophysical concepts by connecting them to the more easily grasped constellation lore and direct visual observations.”


Organization of retired faculty and staff to hold first event this summer


A new organization forming on campus, the Western Carolina University Association of Retired Faculty and Staff, will meet Tuesday, June 25, for a social, luncheon and university update presented by Chancellor David O. Belcher.

“Such an organization is going to provide a great venue for maintaining relationships with people who have given their careers to our university,” said Belcher, who said he is pleased that a group of retired WCU faculty and staff launched an initiative to create the group.

Gordon Mercer, a retired professor of political science and public affairs, said he and other members of the association’s planning committee came together out of an interest in staying connected to the university and to each other.

“If you don’t have an association of retired faculty and staff, over a period of time, people tend to drift away from the university because there is no formal time to meet and get together,” said Mercer. “Meeting regularly keeps people linked to the university and aware of opportunities to contribute in various ways, such as sharing their skills or providing a unique perspective. Retired faculty and staff have great ideas to share with our university.”

That’s also what inspired Sharon Gammon, who retired after working with anthropology and sociology, to join the organization’s planning committee.

“For me, the association will be a way to stay in touch with the people I worked with for so many years,” said Gammon. “Western is a great place – for school and to work. Also, reconnecting with the university as a whole is a good way for us to keep our minds active.”

In addition to Gammon and Mercer, planning committee members are Pat Brown, Norma Medford Clayton ’73, Richard Collings, Michael Dougherty, Fred Hinson, Jennie Hunter MAEd ’66, Bill Kirwan, Carol Martin-Vegue MAEd ’84, Mary Lou Millwood, Karen Nicholson, Jane Perlmutter, Lloyd Phillips ’84, Garry Smith, Steve White ’67, Brenda Wike, Curtis Wood and Royce Woosley.

For information about joining the association or attending the June meeting, contact Gordon Mercer at 828.369.2693 or Fred Hinson at 828.293.5620.


Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree gets approval


The University of North Carolina Board of Governors recently gave its approval for WCU to begin offering the doctor of nursing practice degree, and students are expected to start the program in the fall. The program will be offered jointly by WCU and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, with face-to-face courses taught at UNCC and at WCU’s instructional site at Biltmore Park Town Square in Asheville. The DNP will be WCU’s third doctoral program. The university already offers doctoral degrees in educational leadership and physical therapy.

Judy Neubrander, director of WCU’s School of Nursing, said the program will offer specialties in family nurse practitioner, nurse anesthesiology and nursing administration. The DNP will begin as a post-master’s program, giving students who have completed requirements for a master of science in nursing degree the option of continuing for another two years of study to receive a doctor of nursing practice degree.

In 2016, the program will begin enrolling students who have bachelor’s degrees to start three years of study to earn their doctoral degrees in one of the three specialty areas, Neubrander said. After 2016, WCU will offer both the post-master’s and post-bachelor’s DNP in the three specialty areas, as well as an already existing master of science in nursing degree in the specialty areas of family nurse practitioner, nursing administration and
nursing education.

WCU and UNCC students who enroll in the program will begin each semester by participating in three days of intensive training at one site, and then they will transition to the other university’s instructional site for the remainder of the face-to-face courses that semester. Almost half the coursework will be offered online.

For more information, contact the WCU School of Nursing at 828.227.7467.


WCU students rank third in nation for projects at research conference


WCU students continue to be a force to be reckoned with at the country’s most prestigious undergraduate research conference. Students from Cullowhee had a total of 66 project abstracts accepted for presentation at the 2013 National Conference on Undergraduate Research, an annual spring gathering that provides an opportunity for students from across the nation to present their best research. Among the 408 colleges and universities that sent students to this year’s conference, WCU tied for third place in the total number of projects approved by the NCUR abstract review committee.

Since 2006, WCU has placed in the top 10 in projects accepted for NCUR, and for five of those years has been ranked in the top five, said Brian Railsback, dean of WCU’s Honors College. The college oversees the participation of WCU students in NCUR each year. “Our faculty members are exemplary mentors for our students as they conduct undergraduate research,” Railsback said. “No other university has demonstrated the consistency that WCU has achieved in participating in NCUR.”

NCUR provides a forum for undergraduate scholars to share results of their work through posters, presentations, performances and works of art. About 50 students were scheduled to take a 16-hour bus ride to this year’s conference, which was held Thursday, April 11, through Saturday, April 13, at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. The experience was provided mostly free to students, who only had to pay for some meals and incidental expenses. The trip was paid for with local tuition funds set aside for undergraduate research.

Railsback was joined in accompanying the students on the trip by Steve Carlisle ’73, associate dean of the Honors College, who will retire in December. “This will be my ninth NCUR, and it’s one of the events that I will definitely miss,” Carlisle said before the group departed. “How I got to see our students grow in their confidence and abilities over the years leaves me extremely proud of them and our faculty.

“We have some wonderful students here, and given the opportunity, they truly shine,” Carlisle said. “When our students stand in a room and deliver a paper alongside students from UCLA, Harvard and Princeton, they feel a confidence that will continue with them throughout their college careers.”


Spring semester enrollment reaches highest mark on record


If it seems that a larger number of students than usual are strolling across campus this spring, that’s because there are. Total enrollment for spring semester reached the highest level on record, a surge driven, at least in part, by a larger percentage of freshmen returning for their second semester of classes.

Total enrollment for the 2013 spring semester is 9,361 students, a 5 percent increase over last spring’s total enrollment, and the freshman fall-to-spring retention rate is 91.23 percent, compared with 87.53 percent last fall. This follows on the heels of last fall’s record enrollment of 9,608 students, which marked the first time in university history that total enrollment topped 9,600.

University officials say they are excited because a higher fall-to-spring retention rate typically is a good indicator of a higher fall-to-fall freshman retention rate (that is, the percentage of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who return for their sophomore year). They also are excited because the spring enrollment numbers indicate that efforts to improve the retention rate, which is becoming an important factor in the way University of North Carolina system institutions are funded by the state, seem to be working.

Improving student retention rates has become an institutional priority, with specific goals that have been woven into the university’s strategic plan, titled “2020 Vision,” said Phil Cauley ’83 MS ’90, director of student recruitment and transitions. “Success in college means more than merely gaining acceptance to college. WCU has intensified the spotlight on attracting students who are willing and able to do what it takes to succeed and then providing the encouragement, support and resources that aid in student success,” Cauley said. “In other words, student success is everyone’s job.”

The university has launched several new initiatives over the past few years to improve the student retention rate, including increased emphasis in the admissions review process on success indicators such as high school grade-point average as opposed to performance on standardized tests, the development of a variety of support programs to help students make successful transitions from high school to the university, and early alert programs and interventions when students show warning signs of difficulty.

“WCU is taking a university-wide approach to positively affecting retention and graduation rates,” Cauley said. “This spring’s enrollment figures appear to be an early indication that this unified approach is moving WCU in the right direction.”