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They’ve dubbed it “Appalachia 4G”—a proposed plan to use smartphone technology to spur business development and tourism in Johnson County, Tennessee.

UT students will present the project this week in Washington, DC, to a federal-state commission dedicated to fostering sustainable economic development in Appalachia.

The students, part of UT’s Appalachian Teaching Project, spent the fall semester brainstorming ideas in class to promote Mountain City, in Johnson County, and the Doe Mountain Recreation Area.

Their plan is to use Google cardboard—which is an inexpensive virtual-reality headset—to promote local businesses and the recreational opportunities available at the Doe Mountain Recreation Area. They envision community members creating videos of the recreation area and other locales and posting them online so potential tourists can experience the area virtually.

Their hope is that what they learn in Mountain City can be applied to other Appalachian communities.

This is the sixteenth year of the Appalachian Teaching Project, one of UT’s longest-running service-learning classes. It is sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission, a partnership between federal, state, and local governments. The project provides planning and economic development assistance to distressed communities.

Last year, UT’s class helped fund a 3-D printer for a learning center in Ducktown, Tennessee.

This year, tech-savvy students want to use technology to enhance the appeal and attraction of Johnson County.

“A lot of the people we’re trying to help want to better their communities and don’t know where to begin,” said Casey Bright, a senior in political science and sustainability and a member of the class. “They don’t see themselves as capable of using the same technology or think that it can benefit them. We realize how easy it is to use and we can show them. The technology can help them do things a lot faster than the way they’re doing things right now.”

Bright noted that although some parts of Appalachia experience poverty and isolation, many residents have cell phones and smartphones because it is often their only means of communication and connection with others. Many do not have landlines, and cell phone service has improved dramatically.

Tim Ezzell, a UT research scientist who has taught the Appalachian Teaching Project for thirteen years, noted that Johnson County is located in the middle of a rapidly growing tourism area.

“Other communities in this corridor—Abingdon, Damascus, and Boone—have benefited from this growth,” he said. “We feel like it is now Johnson County’s turn to enjoy some of these economic benefits as well. They have made great progress in the past few years and we are hoping we can help them continue this trend.”

On Friday, Ezzell and the students will join peers from fifteen other universities in ten Appalachian states to present their ideas to the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington, DC.

To learn more about the project, visit the students’ YouTube channel.


Lola Alapo (865-974-3993,