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A 60 percent surge in external funding to the university enhances education, research and programs for the benefit of the community, region and state

By TERESA KILLIAN TATE

When high school students in Haywood County captured stream samples and tested the water quality, they learned more than research skills. They learned that science can be fun and that it matters, says Sue Miller, a teacher at Tuscola High School. “The more advanced students delved deeper into water quality issues such as flood frequency and prediction, which leads to land-use planning in their local community,” said Miller. The water quality research program was developed with colleagues such as husband Jerry Miller, WCU’s Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science, and supported with grants including $11,000 from the Pigeon River Fund.

The grant was one of 32 external awards to WCU faculty and staff and their collaborators during fiscal year 2014 – a year when total awards across the institution climbed 60.1 percent, from $3.4 million to $5.5 million. Funded projects helped enhance education, address community needs and expand research. They included Cherokee language revitalization efforts, DNA sequencing technology research, a study of controlled burns and forest restoration, programming for literary and heritage festivals, leadership training for youth and aspiring regional leaders, and regional education conferences. They also included support for undergraduate research, engineering students, and development of a campus learning community committed to helping students identify what they love about the world and being the change they want to see in it.

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Grant funded projects at WCU in the past year have varied from DNA research (top of page) to an iron pour (above) as part of an exhibit about contemporary cast iron art.

“The more external funding our faculty and staff are able to secure, the better able they are to actively improve education, explore ideas through research and support programs that benefit our community and region, and a 60 percent increase in funding is a particularly admirable achievement in light of the increasingly fierce competition for funding,” said Mimi Fenton, who recently stepped down as dean of the Graduate School and Research and the university’s chief research officer.

WCU faculty and staff who applied for grants credited increased support from the university’s Office of Research Administration for helping them succeed. Fenton said the vision and mission of the office was transformed to focus on providing outstanding support for those seeking external funding, while continuing to assure institutional compliance and research integrity. “We are committed to providing support for activities at all levels,” said Fenton.

The office also underwent significant restructuring and now includes a permanent director of sponsored research, Andrea Moshier; a research protections officer, Erin Burnside; a grants manager/proposal development specialist, Alison Krauss ’03; and a research designer/methodologist, Yanju Li. A search was underway in the spring for a research services coordinator to support funding searches for faculty and staff. Moshier said the team helps with everything from identifying funding opportunities, developing concepts and navigating proposal submission to assisting with compliance reports, and has launched multiple programs to encourage more faculty and staff to apply for external funding. The research office collaborated with Coulter Faculty Commons to host workshops and training, and with Hunter Library to acquire the Foundation Center Directory and InfoEd SPIN database of funding opportunities. A mentorship program that matches faculty and staff members who have little grant experience with mentors continued in its second year with eight new participants. Events such as a grant writers’ reception celebrated faculty and staff who submitted proposals, and the office created and offered a number of grantsmanship workshops for faculty and staff. In addition, a new sponsored research council reviewed standard operating procedures in the office and helped develop the process for an internal grants program.

The service the Office of Research Administration offers now is perhaps the best it has ever been, said Rob Young, director of the WCU Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, which has been awarded more than $6 million in grant funding since 2007. Because the program is almost entirely self-funded, grants are crucial to supporting PSDS staff as well as faculty and students as they examine the scientific basis for managing developed shorelines. They use the data to assist decision-makers in adopting responsible strategies, plans, policies and actions that promote the long-term sustainability of the coastal economy and ecosystems.

Judy Neubrander, director of the School of Nursing, said the ability to win larger grants can be enhanced with experience with smaller grants. “Grant reviewers like to see that you can not only write a grant but also implement it. They want to see you are successful,” said Neubrander, who successfully has written several multimillion dollar grants to enhance nursing education, and related regional partnerships and programs. Her most recent award of more than $1 million supports a three-year partnership to improve the diversity and quality of nursing professionals in the region.

Although the process of applying for grants can require a month or more of solid work outside of assigned duties, the results are extremely rewarding, said David Westling, WCU’s Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education. Westling has worked with co-principal investigators to secure about $6 million in grant funding during his time at WCU. Funded initiatives have included a multimillion dollar program to help young adults with intellectual disabilities attend and succeed in college. “Grants enable you to make a contribution to your own academic life, and to the community, the state and society,” said Westling.

For instance, Denise Drury, director of WCU’s Fine Art Museum, said a $5,000 grant from the North Carolina Arts Council helped bring an exhibit and program to Western North Carolina that the museum would not have been able to host. “Iron Maidens: Women of Contemporary Cast Iron” featured the work of artists from America and the United Kingdom, and a public iron pour held in conjunction at the Jackson County Green Energy Park gave community members the chance to see how iron artwork is made. Timm Muth, director of the Green Energy Park and a student in WCU’s engineering technology graduate program, said participants included about four dozen artists from North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia, and 75 visitors.

“The iron pour event introduced many local community members to the ancient art of foundry work – the oldest metallurgical technique and the forerunner of all modern technology,” said Muth. “Spectators were able to appreciate the skills of the artists and the incredible detail of their finished castings while watching fiery grouts of molten iron splash into the molds.”

Meanwhile, grants enable Peter Bates, associate professor of natural resource conservation and management, to involve WCU students in long-term research evaluating the effects of prescribed burning in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

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Rob Young (at left) guides students in studying the impact that rising sea levels may have on coastal communities.

“During the last few decades, land managers have realized that fire was a much more important component of our Southern Appalachian forest ecosystems than previously thought,” said Bates, who won a $22,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to study the effects of fire in forest communities. “A lot of plant species evolved with periodic fires and require the conditions created by fires to survive. Our success at preventing forest fires, starting with the Smokey the Bear campaign, has allowed non fire-dependent species such as birches, maples and beech trees to replace fire-dependent species such as oaks and hickories in many areas. Non fire-dependent species create completely different forest communities. The goal of land managers and conservation groups is to restore fire-adapted forest communities with most of their associated flora and fauna.”

Fiscal year 2014 awards also included funds from a three-year, $250,000 grant for a project involving WCU’s Hunter Library and Anna Fariello, associate professor of digital initiatives at the library, titled “Great Smoky Mountains: A Park for America.” The initiative will yield a collection of 7,000 digital items in collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Western Office of N.C. Archives and History. John McDade, museum curator for the park, said the digital collection will allow people who are not able to visit a park visitor center or park archives an opportunity to learn about the park and the region’s history. “This project is valuable because it makes our museum collections more accessible to a wider audience,” said McDade.

Darcy Orr, art editor for “Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia,” said digital collections such as those at Hunter Library improve the quality of the work she is able to do. In a digital collection created with a previous grant Fariello won, Orr found an image she needed for “Wayfaring Strangers” of Olive Dame Campbell, author of a book about mountain ballads. “I searched the Western Carolina online collection and found a beautiful portrait by photographer Doris Ulmann of Mrs. Campbell,” said Orr. “Access to these historic photographs, illustrations and documents is important to researchers and writers. Digital access allows the research to be more thorough and certainly easier and cost-effective. The time and expenses needed to physically search museum and library archives in all parts of the world would have been prohibitive and would absolutely have had a negative impact on the visual history in the book.”

Another crucial contributor to recent grants success at WCU was persistence. Landing $625,000 from the National Science Foundation for a program to encourage more students to pursue careers in engineering took several years, said Chip Ferguson EdD ’08, associate dean of the Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology and associate professor of engineering and technology. Recognizing the need for more engineers in WNC, Ferguson worked with collaborators on the project to revise the proposal based on reviewers’ feedback through several funding cycles. Hallmarks of the resulting Scholarship Program Initiative via Recruitment, Innovation and Transformation (or SPIRIT) program include undergraduate research and working as part of a diverse team that brainstorms solutions to address the needs of real organizations and people, and then constructs and tests devices and systems in response to them. “Communications and teamwork are important to the SPIRIT scholars as they meet and work with the people and organizations they serve through their projects,” said Ferguson. “Each SPIRIT project must be sensitive to environmental, social and cultural aspects of its intended use.”

Today, the SPIRIT program is serving students such as Dustin Burgess, who changed his major twice before choosing engineering. Burgess said the program helped him gain confidence that engineering was the right fit for him when, as a freshman, he worked with a faculty member to build a hovercraft prototype using balsa wood, aluminum foil, wires and high voltage – an experience that left him confident he could succeed in the field. “One-on-one experience working with a professional doing research, which most students don’t get until upper level classes, gives me an edge,” said Burgess.

To encourage more WCU faculty and staff to invest their time and resources in seeking external funding, Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar made $50,000 available at the end of the 2014 fiscal year for seed grants of up to $10,000 each, and those were directed to seven projects across multiple disciplines. Another $100,000 from the offices of the chancellor and provost provided seed funding during the 2015 fiscal year for 11 grants that, again, spanned academic disciplines. For the 2015 fiscal year, the chancellor and provost increased their support of the program to $150,000.

Meanwhile, external grant application submissions from WCU halfway through the year were up almost 20 percent — from 31 to 37 – during the 2015 fiscal year, and Moshier said the more than three dozen proposals still under consideration toward the end of the year offered great diversity in size and scope.

“There are multi-year proposals to federal agencies with requests ranging from several hundred thousand dollars to the millions, and there are smaller proposals to national and local foundations,” said Moshier. “In this competitive funding environment, all achievements are remarkable.”   

Grants awarded to faculty and staff in just one year – fiscal year 2014 – supported a variety of research and programming to enhance student learning and meet needs in the community. WCU’s Office of Research Administration helped faculty and staff secure external funds to support:

 

Students

As a teaching-centered, regional university, WCU prioritizes the needs of its students in pedagogy, in service and in
sponsored research. Efforts to improve accessibility and quality of education include:

“WCU Spring Literary Festival” – $7,000 to Pamela Duncan, English, to support annual event that brings local, American and internationally renowned authors to WCU to present to students and members of the community. Funded by the North Carolina Arts Council.

“SMURCHOM VII: The Seventh Smoky Mountain Undergraduate Research Conference on the History of Mathematics” – $1,600 to Sloan Despeaux, Mathematics and Computer Science, to support event that enables students from across the region to discuss their mathematics research. Funded by the Mathematical Association of America.

“North Carolina Ready for Success Application Supporting Alignment for Student Success Mini-Grant: WNC P-16 Education Consortium” – $9,000 to Dale Carpenter, College of Education and Allied Professions, for conference in which teams of prekindergarten to higher education faculty discussed implementing Common Core standards in mathematics. Funded by the N.C. Ready for Success.

“Transitioning to Success: A Model to Facilitate Achievement by Young Adults with Intellectual Disabilities” – $225,000 to Kelly Kelley ’03 MAEd ’06, School of Teaching and Learning, to develop transition models and improve post-school opportunities. Funded by the N.C. Department of Developmental Disabilities.

“Iron Maidens: Women of Contemporary Cast Iron” – $5,000 to Denise Drury, Fine Art Museum, for exhibit and programming. Funded by the North Carolina Arts Council.

“Western North Carolina Nursing Career Network” – $349,305 to Judy Neubrander, School of Nursing, to help students from underserved and disadvantaged populations enter nursing programs. Funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration.

“2013 WCU NAT GRANT” – $13,791 to Shawn Collins, School of Nursing, to support WCU student nurse anesthetists. Funded by Health Resources and Services Administration.

“The SPIRIT: Scholarship Program Initiative via Recruitment, Innovation and Transformation” – $625,179 to Chip Ferguson EdD ’08, Engineering and Technology, for program to enhance the recruitment, retention, education and placement of engineering technology students. Funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Fostering Tomorrow’s Advanced Manufacturing Engineers: A University, Community Colleges and Industry Collaborative Initiative” – $500,000 to James Zhang, Kimmel School, to support Kimmel School partnership program. Funded by the Golden Leaf Foundation.

“Bringing Theory to Practice – The Ripple Effect: A Thematic Interdisciplinary Design for Engaged Learning and Community Involvement” – $7,000 to Lane Perry, Center for Service Learning, for programming to help students identify what they love about the world and be the change they want to see in it. Funded by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“NCCAT’s Beginning Teachers Sustainability Project” – $45,000 to Laura Cruz, Coulter Faculty Commons, for development of a series of training modules to help new teachers. Funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation via the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

“2014 Problem Gambling Outreach/Prevention/Awareness Plan” – $5,000 to Margaret Basehart, Student Community Ethics, to create programs that raise awareness of problem gambling and alcohol use. Funded by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

“WCU GEAR UP Day” – $1,944 to Mark Anderson, Admissions, for a “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program” that brings seventh- and eighth-grade students to the WCU campus. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education via UNC General Administration.

“Student Mentor Program” – $5,000 to Todd Murdock ’85 MAEd ’93, Project Discovery, to hire WCU students who attended Swain or Robbinsville high schools to serve as mentors for students at those schools and support them in the college application process. Funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission via Appalachian State University.

Regional Business and State Economy

WCU’s “2020 Vision: Focusing Our Future” strategic plan commits the institution to supporting regional businesses, industries and economic development efforts. To that end, external funds secured by WCU faculty and staff have included:

“North Carolina Agricultural Mediation Program FY 2014” – $95,844 to Jayne Zanglein, Business Law, Hospitality and Sport Management, for a program that serves U.S. Department of Agriculture customers. Funded by the USDA.

“2014 Faculty Liaison” – $7,000 to Robert Carton, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, to fund faculty and student travel and supplies for work to assist businesses. Funded by the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center.

“Free Enterprise Educational Activities at WCU” – $12,000 to Stephen Miller, Accounting, Finance, Information Systems and Economics, for activities such as a guest speaker series and student travel to academic meetings. Funded by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

“Small Business and Technology Development Center” – $515,773 to Wendy Cagle ’86 MBA ’95, SBTDC, to provide Western North Carolina entrepreneurs and business owners assistance with counseling, interest rebates and loans, financial planning, Energy Efficiency and Clean Technology advising and hurricane recovery resources. Funded by the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center.

Community

Grants help WCU faculty, staff and students enhance the work they do with regional partners in response to community needs:

“Cherokee Language Revitalization 8th Year” – $74,617 to Hartwell Francis, Cherokee Studies, for development of Cherokee language learning tools. Funded by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

“31JK12 Pottery Analyses” – $5,500 to Jane Eastman, Anthropology and Sociology, to analyze pottery shards from archaeological excavations in Jackson County. Funded by the Louis Berger Group Inc.

“Assessing Sample Preparation Methods and Emerging DNA Sequencing Technologies for Human Forensic mtDNA Analysis” – $717,768 to Mark Wilson, Chemistry and Physics, to evaluate emerging methods of DNA sequence analysis in connection with forensic casework. Funded by the National Institute of Justice.

“Rural Healthy Aging Research Network” – $84,950 to Turner Goins, Social Work, to continue research on disparities in health and health promotion among rural older adults. Funded by Center for Disease Control via West Virginia University.

“Get Smart(er): Engaging 21st Century Teachers and Learners using Interactive Whiteboards” – $18,193 to Elizabeth McDonough, Hunter Library, to provide whiteboard technology access to pre-service teachers and professional development to teaching librarians and teaching faculty. Funded by the North Carolina Library Services and Technology Act.

“Great Smoky Mountains: A Park for America” – $93,314 to Anna Fariello, Hunter Library, to design a collection of 6,000 digital items through a library collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Western Office of N.C Archives and History. Funded by the North Carolina State Library.

“Western North Carolina Leadership Initiative” – $228,516 to Laura Cruz, Coulter Faculty Commons, for a youth program based on Cherokee values and leadership traditions and a program for adults focused on solving regional problems. Funded by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

“Duyudvi Cherokee Second Language Learner Project” – $2,500 to Juanita Wilson ’02, Educational Outreach, for initiatives including distribution of Cherokee language compact discs to enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Funded by the Sacred Fire Foundation.

“African Americans in Western North Carolina” – $750 to Scott Philyaw ’83, Mountain Heritage Center, for work with a study of the long-term impacts of the removal of AME Zion church and cemetery from WCU’s campus, an oral history project of the black community in Haywood County and commemoration of the death of 19 black convict laborers. Funded by the North Carolina Humanities Council.

“Mountain Heritage Day programming support” – $1,100 to Peter Koch, Mountain Heritage Center, to enable demonstrations by traditional craftspeople in areas such as blacksmithing, Cherokee pottery, weaving and spinning, and furniture making at a free annual heritage festival held at WCU. Funded by the Jackson County Arts Council.

Earth

The mountains of WNC that are home to WCU attract thousands of tourists annually and contribute to an ambiance at WCU that Chancellor David O. Belcher dubs “a little slice of heaven.” A commitment to protecting and understanding the environment so crucial to the economy and the quality of life in the region motivates involvement with projects such as:

“Faculty and Student Training in the Collection and Interpretation of Water Quality Data” – $11,317 to Jerry Miller, Geosciences and Natural Resources, for work with teachers and development of hands-on learning experiences for high school students. Funded by the Pigeon River Fund.

“Prescribed Fire Effects in Oak-Hickory, Yellow Pine and High Elevation Red Oak Communities in the Southeastern United States” – $22,000 to Peter Bates, Geosciences and Natural Resources, to expand research of forest restoration at burn sites. Funded by the U.S. Forest Service.

“Grassroots FY 2013-2014 Grant for Highlands Nature Center, Highlands Biological Station” – $62,816 to Karen Kandl, Highlands Biological Station, for educational programming, exhibits, staff and operations. Funded by the Highlands Biological Foundation.

“Climate Change Facilities Adaptation Support” – $136,000 to Robert Young, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, to develop tools that support the Climate Friendly Parks program. Funded by the National Park Service.