The Pulse Of The Species

Here we introduce our project The Pulse Of The Species, or TPOTS, and discuss how it fits within our more broadly scoped Interactive Basin Project, or IBP. We briefly discuss shifting baseline syndrome, and how TPOTS is designed to be an ecoliterate learning experience in part to help ameliorate the effects of shifting baselines, with the potential to form interspecific ecological communities of practice.

We describe how TPOTS is intended to serve as an open educational resource (OER), and we also begin describing how TPOTS and the IBP will function as hybridized learning experiences.  We use the Blue Ridge Project, a previous attempt to dam the Upper New River in the 1970s, as a case study for how TPOTS and the IBP can highlight the potential for continued shifting baselines local to our home basin.

We conclude with a discussion of how and why to scale the IBP and TPOTS beyond the Upper New River basin, and how to expand the capacity (and material) of each project with partnerships and integrations.

Initially, this web page was published to complement a poster presented at the 2024 New River Symposium hosted by the New River Conservancy.  It should be considered a living document which we will expand with new material about the TPOTS project as we have time.

What is the Interactive Basin Project (IBP)?

The Interactive Basin Project, or IBP, is a technological vehicle for hybridizing engaging lifelong incidental learning experiences in any bioregion (watershed basin) using digital systems situated in physical reality.

Different types of tool sets will be embedded for the delivery and collection of information and data about the activities of various species within any given bioregion.

The IBP is intended to be modular and extensible, implementing and demonstrating a scalable model able to be deployed in any bioregion (land surface) on any continent on planet Earth.

The initial bioregion(s) for IBP implementation are the Upper New River Basin (USGS HUC 05050001) and its nine neighboring basins. 

Yes, but…WHAT is the IBP?

The IBP is a map. A timeline. Interactive data visualization. A web-based interactive learning experience (mobile friendly, responsive), and any number of relevant native mobile apps.

A concept mockup for an interactive timeline interface.

What is The Pulse Of The Species (TPOTS)?

The TPOTS Project involves geocaching within the Upper New River basin and neighbors along specific routes, paired with trail cameras to capture wildlife activity and solicited (prompted and instructed) human monologue narratives in wild and developed spaces.

Using provided maps or guidebooks, participants explore the history and ecology of the bioregion, including places that would currently be underwater, with options to create personal maps and narratives of their explorations.

We have chosen several “routes” or networks within the Upper New River Basin to host the TPOTS pilot phase, including The Blue Ridge Parkway, The Upper New River (trails and parks), and The Mountains to Sea Trail, as well as various “locals” spots within and along the edges of the Upper New River Basin.

Screenshot of GaiaGPS showing elements of TPOTS pilot project

Here’s a link to our pilot map of TPOTS and the IBP, using GaiaGPS.

What is the relationship between the IBP and TPOTS?

TPOTS is the first project to be implemented within the IBP by The Upper New.

Consider the IBP to be a vehicle we’re building, refining over time.  The IBP is the procedural framework for operating projects such as TPOTS.

TPOTS is our way to demonstrate what is possible with the IBP, especially concerning how it can be used for incidental learning in real spaces using hybridized tools.

TPOTS is how we’re going to test drive the IBP vehicle.

Shifting Baselines: Environmental Generational Amnesia

In their recent book Rewilding, Jepson and Blythe give a sense of what shifting baselines are, and the effect they have on the human relationship with the biosphere.1Jepson, P., Blythe, C. (2020). Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery. United Kingdom: Icon Books Limited.

“This century is witnessing a fundamental reassessment of the science and practice of nature conservation. An exciting and unsettling body of new thinking is emerging, inspired by the realisation that we have internalised ecological impoverishment in our science, culture and institutions. This impoverishment is a consequence of the syndrome of ‘shifting baselines’, where each generation assumes the nature they experienced in their youth to be normal and unwittingly accepts the declines and damage of the generations before.”

Jepson & Blythe (2020)

Alleway and her colleagues provide a more direct notion of what shifting baseline syndrome is, and why it is important for understanding environmental psychology and human relationships with climate change (or any sort of human-caused change to any portion of the biosphere).2Alleway, H. K., Klein, E. S., Cameron, L., Douglass, K., Govia, I., Guell, C., Lim, M., Robin, L., & Thurstan, R. H. (2023). The shifting baseline syndrome as a connective concept for more informed and just responses to global environmental change. People and Nature, 5, 885–896. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10473

“The concept of the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ has assisted researchers in understanding how expectations for the health of the environment deteriorate, despite known, often widespread, and significant impacts from human activities. The concept has been used to demonstrate that more accurate assessment of historical ecosystem decline can be achieved by balancing contemporary perceptions with other sorts of evidence, and is now widely referred to in studies assessing environmental change.”

Alleway, et al (2023)

They continue: “We perceive the shifting baseline syndrome as a rare working example of a ‘connective concept’ that can work across fields of science, the humanities and others and that re-envisioning the concept in this way would assist us to establish more complete, true and reflective environmental baselines.”  Here’s a “plain language summary” of the Alleway article.

Finally, Kahn and colleagues provide another perspective on shifting baselines and the effect on the human relationship with nature.3Kahn, P. H., Severson, R. L., & Ruckert, J. H. (2009). The Human Relation With Nature and Technological Nature. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(1), 37–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20695991

“The concern is that, by adapting gradually to the loss of actual nature and to the increase of technological nature, humans will lower the baseline across generations for what counts as a full measure of the human experience…”

Kahn, et al (2009)

Our understanding is that Khan is concerned that technology is reducing human engagement with nature in a way that prevents us from staying in touch with reality, and remembering what reality is/was like and how it changes over time.  We take this as a foundation of how a technological project such as TPOTS and the IBP should be designed.

TPOTS: Eco Literate Learning Experience Design (ELxD)

We approach learning experience design (LxD) in a manner that fosters incidental learning, which is similar to informal learning, except that the targeted learner does not necessarily enter into the experience with the intention of learning (as opposed to visiting a history museum, which typically involves wanting to learn about history).  When we design for incidental learning experiences, we intend to create experiences that are unexpected or surprising, satisfying, and unforgettable.

The IBP is being designed and developed as a framework for delivering hybridized experiences across the five different types of learning environments (Gee, n.d.)4Gee (n.d.) Personal communication. with a primary focus on improving functional, cultural, and critical ecological literacy (e.g., Stables, 19985Stables, A. (1998).  Environmental literacy: Functional, cultural, critical.  The case of the SCAA guidelines.  Environmental Education Research, 4(2), 155-164.; Orr, 19926Orr, D. W. (1992).  Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world.  Albany, NY: SUNY Press.; Golley, 19987Golley, F. B. (1998).  A primer for environmental literacy.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.; Cutter-Mackenzie & Smith, 20038Cutter-Mackenzie, A., & Smith, R. (2003). Ecological Literacy: the ‘missing paradigm’ in environmental education (part one). Environmental Education Research, 9(4), 497-524. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350462032000126131; Berkes, Colding, and Folke, 20039Berkes, F., Colding, J., & Folke, C. (Eds.) (2003). Navigating social-ecological systems: Building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.; Stone & Barlow, 200510Stone, M. K., & Barlow, Z. (2005). Ecological literacy: educating our children for a sustainable world. San Francisco : Berkeley, Sierra Club Books.) by fostering reciprocal reasoning across internal (agent-based) and external (aggregate) perspectives of nonlinear systems experiences over time (Jacobson & Wilenksy, 200611Jacobson, M. J., & Wilenksy, U. (2006).  Complex systems in education: Scientific and educational importance and implications for the learning sciences.  Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(1), 11-34.).

A diagram showing one potential learning pathway through the conceptualized five environments for learning.

In addition to the IBP hybrid experience framework, we are building a variety of printed and digital curricular materials to complement and direct these incidental experiences for the learner, including maps, guidebooks, and job aids with narrative prompts, as well as instructions for how to continue one’s hybrid learning experience over time.

Primarily at geocache boxes and kiosks placed throughout the IBP, people will be prompted with questions to help them generate narrative reflections “in place.”  We have written extensively about our take on what it is to form a sense of place.

Here are a few examples of question prompts posted to IBP/TPOTS learners:

  • How did you get here?
  • Why did you come here?
  • Where are you going next?
  • What do you know about this place?
  • Do you know where this place is?
  • Do you know what this place is?
  • What is the history of this place?
  • What is the ecology of this place?
  • What are your plans to expand your knowledge of the history and ecology of this place?

Learners can record audio, video, sketch, photograph, write (or any combination) – as long as it’s curated into a coherent interpretive expression and shared with The IBP/TPOTS for consideration.  These multimodal narrative response constructions can occur in situ or elsewhere, so long as the initial geolocation “kernel” of the learning experience is established.

Interspecific Ecological Communities of Practice (EcoCoPs)

Wenger has defined communities of practice as  “formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor…” and he insists that three critical elements are crucial to the formation (and maintenance) of any community of practice: domain, community, and practice.  Concise definitions for these three terms are provided on the Wikipedia page about communities of practice:

“Domain: A domain of knowledge creates common ground, inspires members to participate, guides their learning and gives meaning to their actions.

Community: The notion of a community creates the social fabric for that learning. A strong community fosters interactions and encourages a willingness to share ideas.

Practice: While the domain provides the general area of interest for the community, the practice is the specific focus around which the community develops, shares and maintains its core of knowledge.”

Wikipedia: Community of Practice

There are three three modes of belonging crucial to the formation of identity (and thus learning) within any community of practice: engagement, imagination and alignment.  Jenny Mackness provides concise definitions:

Engagement is the active negotiation of meaning through the formation of trajectories and the unfolding of histories of practice. Mutual engagement creates a shared reality in which to act and construct an identity. Whilst it can lead to negotiation of meaning, the shared histories can also narrow learning through their power in sustaining identity.

Alignment coordinates our energies and activities to contribute to broader structures. Through alignment we do what we need to do to become part of something big. Alignment concerns power, it can amplify our power and our sense of the possible – but it can also be blind and disempowering making us vulnerable to delusion and abuse.

Imagination is extrapolating your own experiences through time and space. It is a creative process that reaches beyond direct engagement. Imagination can create relations of identity anywhere throughout history. Imagination was very well illustrated by the experiences of two stonecutters, doing the same job who differed in the sense of what they were doing and in their sense of themselves as individual stonecutters. One was ‘cutting a perfectly square shape’; the other was ‘building a cathedral’.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED Jenny Mackness

We hope to use the IBP and TPOTS to take this concept of community one step further, considering all species in any bioregion or basin to be included as members of that community, based on behavioral transactions and relationships that contribute to human learning about place.

So: how do we use TPOTS and the IBP to help foster human engagement within interspecific ecological communities of practice?  This is a foundational purpose of TPOTS and IBP.

TPOTS as Open Educational Resources (OERs)

As much as possible, we intend for the learning experience materials and protocols produced by The Upper New to be made available as Open Educational Resources (OER).  This is part of our mission as an educational literary nonprofit organization.

According to the OER Commons: “OER are educational materials—everything from a single lesson plan to an entire textbook—that save students and teachers money because they are free to use, customize, and share.  OER are openly licensed, which makes it easy to personalize materials and infuse them with fresh, relevant content.”

The Upper New is considering the creation of an OER Hub, which according to the OER Commons, is “a custom resource center on OER Commons where groups can create and share collections associated with a project or organization. Projects, institutions, states and initiatives make use of Hubs to bring groups of educators together to create, organize, and share collections that meet their common goals.”

You can read more about OER on Wikipedia.

We intend to extend the TPOTS and IBP learning experiences with “wraparound” or “sidecar” materials (instructional materials, teaching guides, etc.) that would expedite the integration of TPOTS and the IBP as OER in any classroom in the world.  

This seems as though it would encourage a reciprocal relationship, increasing the usage of the projects, creating additional organic experiential material.  Clearly we will need to partner with learning designers, teachers, and subject matter experts to continue building these supporting materials to round out the OER offerings.

Hybridized Learning Experiences: How Do They Work?

Human experiences happen within systems, whether we’ve built them or not.  Every experience exists within a system.

A learning system is an intentional arrangement of relationships between people, information, technologies, and spaces — at varied frequencies and durations across time.  Learning systems are dynamic: made of networks of people, information, and technologies, arranged differently in various spaces, for varied durations, constantly changing over time.  One of the most important factors of well designed learning systems is that they are supported by well designed assessment systems.

Hybrid learning systems combine elements of virtual and real technologies and information to support learning experiences in a variety of spaces over time.  For example, we are exploring the use of data-infused near field communication (NFC) tags attached to our geocache boxes in order to allow for transfer of information to a mobile device (including instructions, etc.) without the need for any kind of cellular data or wi-fi connection.  This would allow us to implement such boxes in many more interesting places, at a much lower cost.

NFC wafer held in front of prototype geocache box.

According to the Wikipedia page for NFC, “Near-field communication (NFC) is a set of communication protocols that enables communication between two electronic devices over a distance of 4 centimetres (1.6 in) or less.”  

This is the technology used for services where you can tap your phone (or credit card) on a kiosk to pay for consumer goods.  We will be experimenting with how much information (and what types of data) we can embed on these NFC wafers in order to increase engagement (and accuracy of engagement) with our geocaches and kiosks.

The Assessment Delivery Construction platform, which sits atop the HSRA framework is one way to conceptualize how hybrid learning experiences can be built and delivered.  Essentially, the basis of building hybrid learning experiences is a continuous consideration of any learning experience, how this experience changes over time, which data can and should be collected about the learning experience (in service of feedback/guidance, etc.) and how the relationships between the experience and these data change over time.

A diagram of the conceptualized Assessment Delivery Construction (ADC) platform.

The IBP is an excellent opportunity to fully hybridize this educational environmental humanities literary arts experience of The Upper New Review, serving as a centerpiece for human experiences of space, time, and flow. This juxtaposition is critical for understanding human relationships with other species and the Basin, leading to a better understanding for where The Upper New Review should be heading, and how it will continue to “get there”, transforming into a longitudinal participatory collaboration. The IBP will also be a dynamic centerpiece for networking and presentation of The Upper New Review at workshops and professional/academic conferences.

Case: Remembering the Blue Ridge Project

On Sept 11, 1976, US Congress voted in favor of a bill designating the New River as a Wild and Scenic River, effectively killing the Blue Ridge Project, an attempt to dam the New River for a net energy loss hydroelectric system.

One thematic focus of the TPOTS project is to prevent environmental amnesia and shifting baseline syndrome in the humans living in or passing through our bioregion by highlighting the defeat of the Blue Ridge Project, showing where the reservoirs would have been, what would now be underwater, and what would never have happened had these reservoirs been constructed.

Artist rendering of the dams and reservoirs that would have been constructed if the Blue Ridge Project had been successful.

Thomas Schoenbaum has published the definitive text covering the detailed history of The Blue Ridge Project, called The New River Controversy, in which he explains12Schoenbaum, T. J. (2007). The New River controversy. United Kingdom: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers.:

“The story of the New River shows in concrete terms the folly of a policy of unlimited development of all available resources. This policy, had it been carried out, would have created a power project that consumed four units of electricity for every three it produced and would have destroyed a deeply rooted, traditional mountain culture. Yet, because of our national commitment to “cheap and abundant” energy, this was almost allowed to happen by persons who gave no thought to conservation, persons with the attitude that there are essentially no limits to either our use of or our ability to produce energy.”

Schoenbaum (2007)

We want to foster a critical understanding of the relationship between real experiences of the past, present, and future with analysis of data and evidence from scenarios that did and did not happen, in an effort to increase our systems wisdom and ecological literacy as we continue to explore potential futures for the bioregion and biosphere.

Essentially, we’ll include the ecological case history of the Blue Ridge Project (and the dams and reservoirs that never were built) as a core feature of the TPOTS project as relevant to the Upper New basin, especially to maintain the memory of victory and prevent one form of shifting baseline syndrome.

Continental, Global: Scaling beyond the Upper New River Basin

Throughout 2024 and 2025, we will continue to pilot TPOTS and the IBP here in the Upper New Basin (HUC 05050001) and in parts of our nine neighboring basins (as we expand our volunteer stewardship team).  We are also working with stewards across the United States to explore opportunities for expanding this modular project into any watershed.

Part of the work is refining and publishing the project protocols in order to make it easy for people to participate as stewards, especially concerning equipment installation and management, data collection, and documentation.

As an ongoing research and development project for ecological literacy teaching and learning, The Upper New continues to seek public and private funding for pilot implementations and scalable protocols, including collaborative research endeavors.

Expanding TPOTS: Partnerships and Integrations

Since the inception of this project, TPOTS and the IBP have been designed for modularity, extensibility, and scalability for the purpose of integration and collaborative partnerships.  There are many different avenues for both integration and collaboration within the Upper New basin, as well as across the watersheds of North America and the world.

Extant Data

Over time, we’d integrate any publicly available data sets and platforms that are relevant to the reciprocal reasoning about nonlinear systems we wish to foster as part of the growth pathways for ecological literacy.  One example is the Streamer app from the USGS, which links to public streamflow data.  Another example is The National Map.

Scientists: Citizens and Professionals

We want to connect with citizen scientists and professional scientists who would like to publish their projects and findings in TPOTS, especially those scientists conducting research and experiments aligned with the themes of relevance to TPOTS specifically and ecological literacy in general.  If you’re interested, we’re open to conversation!  The same goes for practical naturalists.  You may not think you’re a scientist, but if you’re a naturalist, observing species in reality, this project is an excellent opportunity to share your work with others so they can learn from your efforts.

Artists, Media Makers

One purpose of the IBP and TPOTS is to contextualize the perspectives and outputs of the human species within the interspecific interactions and nonlinear systems that make up the biosphere.  We hope the IBP and the TPOTS project can showcase place-based creative works across modalities in ways that are relevant to all humans to better understand our proper place in the biosphere we share with all other living organisms.

Software Developers and Volunteer Stewards

Developers can help us build custom integrations for the platforms and systems that will support the way learners interact with the IBP and engage with the TPOTS experiences.  Volunteer stewards can help us do the stewardship work associated with TPOTS: such as placing and maintaining cameras, kiosks, and geocache stations, either in the Upper New basin or in their home basins.

Works Cited

  • 1
    Jepson, P., Blythe, C. (2020). Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery. United Kingdom: Icon Books Limited.
  • 2
    Alleway, H. K., Klein, E. S., Cameron, L., Douglass, K., Govia, I., Guell, C., Lim, M., Robin, L., & Thurstan, R. H. (2023). The shifting baseline syndrome as a connective concept for more informed and just responses to global environmental change. People and Nature, 5, 885–896. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10473
  • 3
    Kahn, P. H., Severson, R. L., & Ruckert, J. H. (2009). The Human Relation With Nature and Technological Nature. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(1), 37–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20695991
  • 4
    Gee (n.d.) Personal communication.
  • 5
    Stables, A. (1998).  Environmental literacy: Functional, cultural, critical.  The case of the SCAA guidelines.  Environmental Education Research, 4(2), 155-164.
  • 6
    Orr, D. W. (1992).  Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world.  Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
  • 7
    Golley, F. B. (1998).  A primer for environmental literacy.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • 8
    Cutter-Mackenzie, A., & Smith, R. (2003). Ecological Literacy: the ‘missing paradigm’ in environmental education (part one). Environmental Education Research, 9(4), 497-524. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350462032000126131
  • 9
    Berkes, F., Colding, J., & Folke, C. (Eds.) (2003). Navigating social-ecological systems: Building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 10
    Stone, M. K., & Barlow, Z. (2005). Ecological literacy: educating our children for a sustainable world. San Francisco : Berkeley, Sierra Club Books.
  • 11
    Jacobson, M. J., & Wilenksy, U. (2006).  Complex systems in education: Scientific and educational importance and implications for the learning sciences.  Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(1), 11-34.
  • 12
    Schoenbaum, T. J. (2007). The New River controversy. United Kingdom: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers.