This is an archived article.

March 6, 2003

UW-China exchange gives students unique research opportunity

Imagine you’re a junior at the UW, maybe 20 or 21 years old. You travel to a Chinese university where, with several UW professors and fellow students, you take an overnight train, followed by an all-day bus ride and then a considerable walk to a remote village called Yangjuan. This is where you’ll be doing research for the academic year. So, when the professors have gone home, you’ll have to travel from the university to the village on your own, conduct research and write up your results.

Would you be up to the challenge? Well, some UW students are. They’re among 28 American participants (along with 28 Chinese) in a pilot project that sends undergraduate students to China and brings Chinese undergraduates to the UW — not just to study, but to do original research.

Directed by Materials Science and Engineering Professor Gretchen Kalonji, the project is part of a larger program called UW Worldwide that is designed to transform education and research through the creation of multinational faculty/student projects across the disciplines. UW Worldwide is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE), the National Science Foundation’s Partnership for Innovation Program and the UW’s Tools for Transformation Fund.

The pilot project, an exchange between the UW and Sichuan University in western China, involves students and faculty from Arts & Sciences, Engineering and Forest Resources under the theme of the environment. Students enroll as freshmen and spend their first two years studying environmental science, as well as the language and culture of the other country. The junior year is spent abroad, and during the senior year they return to their home institution and write a thesis.

“It all began with the International Faculty Council, which was looking for ways we could draw together different parts of the University in innovative international programs,” said Stevan Harrell, professor of anthropology and a core faculty member in the program. “UW Worldwide was the result.”

He and several other professors came up with the idea of a partnership with the People’s Republic of China with environmental education as a theme. Other core faculty besides Harrell and Kalonji are Botany Professor Dick Olmstead, Botany and Genome Sciences Professor Benjamin Hall, Forest Resources Professor Tom Hinckley and Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Michael Brett.

The group talked to several Chinese universities, Harrell said, before settling on Sichuan University. Sichuan Province, he explained, has had a province-to-state relationship with Washington, and the university is one of the beneficiaries of a large loan through the World Bank to make major changes in undergraduate education.

The program accepted its first students in the fall of 2000, meaning that this is the first year it has had students travel to the other country. For Harrell, the experience has been particularly exciting because he has been doing anthropological research in the province for many years — in a small village occupied by a minority group called the Nuosu. It is that village where the students went after their arrival in China and the site of research projects for some of them.

Forestry students, for example, are doing a comprehensive forest survey in the area, while botany students are doing the flora. A Jackson school student is measuring the amount of forest and its rate of growth, then comparing that to the average firewood use of families to see if it’s a sustainable relationship.

Two other students are doing ethnobotany. They’re working with village elders to record the native names and the uses of the plants that are collected by the botanists. “We’re going to return a set of botanical specimens to the people so they can use that in the teaching of their elementary school science classes,” Harrell said.

In addition to the work in the village, some of the engineering students are working on such issues as low cost wastewater treatment facilities, and design of new, more environmentally friendly materials for the electronics industry.

Meanwhile, the Chinese students are doing research here. Olmstead has three students in his lab, where he does molecular evolutionary studies of plants.

“They’re doing really well,” Olmstead said of the students. “In fact, I’m encouraging one of them to apply to graduate school here.” He added that evolutionary research isn’t emphasized much in China, where applied science is the rule, so working in his lab is a new experience for the students in more ways than one.

Hall — who also has three Chinese students working in his lab — joined the project because he was already engaged in evolutionary studies of rhododendrons. The center of diversity for rhododendrons, and for many other flowering plants, he says, is in Sichuan and Yunnan, the neighboring province. From student research has emerged a surprising relationship between rhododendrons of the high mountains of China and a species found in Greenland, Alaska and Siberia.

“Our students took a field trip together and collected specimens there, and now the students in my lab are studying those specimens’ DNA,” Hall said. “That’s work they can’t do in China because they don’t have the equipment.”

Harrell is working with five Chinese students who are making a video about Northwest Coast Indian Art. The group has been interviewing native artists and shooting footage of them in action. “The idea is to make a Chinese language educational teaching video that could be shown in Chinese universities as part of anthropology classes,” Harrell explained.

Jing Tang, one of the five, called the experience “fascinating,” saying it had “widened her eyesight.” Before her trip here, Tang said, she was only vaguely aware that there were people called native Americans; now she knows quite a bit about them and their art.

The group’s videographer, Yuanyuan Wang, said making the video was “a way for us to understand a situation in contemporary society.”

Harrell’s students have been attending a regular seminar with George MacDonald, director of the Burke Museum, and he has asked for copies of the students’ raw footage, which could be of use to the Burke.

The students aren’t the only ones who are learning in this project. Harrell, who is curator of Asian ethnology at the Burke, says he has learned a lot about Northwest coast art through the students.

And Olmstead said if it hadn’t been for the project, he probably never would have gone to China. “It was an educational experience for me as a botanist because western China has some of the most diverse flora of any temperate region in the world,” he said. “It expanded my knowledge. I think I benefited more from the field trips at the beginning of the exchange than the students because I had a better knowledge base to start with.”

The UW students now in China are learning, too. Victoria Poling’s written reflection about the experience so far is typical. Noting that the older men and women of Yangjuan know and can name edible grasses and weeds because they were eaten during the famines resulting from being forced to plant rice, she says, “What I learned from Yangjuan had more to do with people, their personalities and values than it did with systematic botany. The plant collecting and naming became more of a tool to see into the living history of Yangjuan and the people of Yangjuan.”

For further information, see  and