Photos: Hiromi Okumura, C. Meranda Flachs-Surmanek & Emma Hultin

New River Valley, VA, USA

Emmanuel Frimpong, Eugene Maurakis, Hiromi Okumura, Maddie Betts, Thomas Bustamante, Samantha Brooks, and Emma Hultin

Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science and Fish & Wildlife Department

Summer 2021 - Summer 2022

- Community Engagement
- Survey Design
- Work Plan & Timeline Development
- Workshop Design & Facilitation
- Walking Tour Design & Facilitation

Ecosystem Engineers in Freshwater Ecosystems

Every year as the winter frost begins to thaw, ecologists flock to Tom’s Creek in Virginia, to observe the beginning of an extraordinary event. Only this year, they are accompanied by engineers and artists of all disciplines–fine artists, performance-based artists, a film crew. This group is there to witness the breeding habits of a small, unremarkable minnow with one remarkable talent: it can build nests out of thousands of pebbles using only its mouth. We believe this too often overlooked minnow, the Bluehead chub, can inspire local community members to advocate for our freshwater ecosystems.

I have collaborated with people from a broad range of fields to bring residents into conversations about land use and conservation. With the catalytic support of Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science, our team of artists, engineers and scientists developed a public event at the research field site at Tom’s Creek that incorporated storytelling, dance, writing, a walking tour, friendly competition, and a communal meal. We also piloted an arts-based workshop with the New River Valley Master Naturalists chapter that features storytelling and embodied exercises.

All of our work together supported discovery-driven learning about freshwater ecosystem conservation. The team is continuing its arts-science collaborations after being awarded at Virginia Tech Institute for Creativity, Arts & Technology (VT-ICAT) grant.