The School of the Environment site in Dali, China—on the eastern edge of the Himalayas—holds spectacular environmental and cultural resources.

This region of Yunnan province is a melting pot of ethnic minorities and a world renowned biodiversity hotspot. This makes for an ideal location to host an experiential learning program that merges the fields of environmental science and studies, with student leadership development and early career preparation.

Interdisciplinary Studies

In order to study the complexity of China’s environment, one must take an interdisciplinary approach. Our faculty represent fields as diverse as geology and chemistry, religious studies, geography, planning, filmmaking, and biodiversity conservation. In Yunnan your learning will occur in forests, wetlands and mountains; temples, kitchens, and homes; shops, alleys, and markets; laboratories, libraries and museums.


The pedagogy is problem-based. We tackle significant environmental problems from various angles, bringing the knowledge of many disciplines together to investigate the causes of environmental challenges, and generate creative, sustainable solutions by dissolving traditional disciplinary boundaries. Our core pedagogical goals:

  • Embed courses, teaching and learning in place by immersing students in local environmental resources and institutional context;
  • Encourage field-based and experiential education;
  • Take a problem-based approach to exploring environmental conflicts;
  • Integrate leadership development into coursework through conversations and workshops with local and international experts;
  • Maintain a 6/1 student/faculty ratio;
  • Maximize interdisciplinary interaction among students and faculty through co-teaching and creation of a dynamic living and learning community;
  • Leverage faculty expertise to provide students with choice and flexibility in their course selection.

Course descriptions

Students will take one required courses and two elective courses. In addition, all students will be required to take a module in basic Traveler’s Mandarin Chinese.

Required Courses

  • Sustainability Practicum (Gervich)


  • Understanding Place (Xie) 
  • Wicked Problems in Environmental Policy (Gervich)
  • Environmental Analysis (Grossman, Fair)
  • Environmental Video Production (Grossman)
  • Aquatic Ecology (Fair)

Sustainability Practicum

This class discusses practical issues in problem solving for sustainability. Subjects may include governance and administration in China, wicked problems, sustainable communities, spatial and systems thinking, structured decision making and persuasive communication, among others. Through a series of field-based exercises intended to hone your observational and analytical skills, workshops from environmental leaders and interviews/presentations with practitioners based in the US and China, this course will enhance, amplify and elevate your sustainability leadership skills. 1 Unit (3 semester-hours).

Understanding Place

What is place? How does one experience and interpret place? How are places co-constructed by social and environmental factors? How are places greater than the sums of the social and environmental structures that make them? How do you fit into, and make, a place? How do places make you? And finally, how are local places made by global forces and how do local places interact to create a planetary experience for all humankind? This course will explore these questions by connecting theories of place with the methods of observation uncovered in the Environmental Analysis course. Ultimately, students will experience, and learn about, what it means to be a place maker and protector, and to be constructed by the places around them. We hope that you come away from this course with an appreciation for respectfully and courageously learning about a place as an outsider. Put simply, how to be a stranger in a new land, and how to move from stranger to learner. 1 Unit (3 semester-hours).

Wicked Problems in Environmental Policy

Wicked problems have no clear “right” or “wrong” solutions or fixes. Finding the best solution to these dilemmas is a matter of perspective, and the interconnectedness among scientific and social elements means that any resolution carries advantages and disadvantages.  Thus, wicked problems include intractable forces that make “solving” them almost impossible. We will explore the environmental governance of wicked problems in environmental policy and politics.  We will focus on systems theory, policy networks, and adaptive management to explore the emergence of wicked problems and the current approaches used by governance institutions to cope with these challenges. 1 Unit (3 semester-hours).

Environmental Analysis

This class will involve interdisciplinary investigations into environmental transitions and transformation in China. Students will engage in qualitative and quantitative data collection, analysis, interpretation, presentation and application. The methods and tools developed in this course will inform your final project. 1 Unit (3 semester-hours)

Environmental Video Production

Video can be a powerful tool for research and creative expression, and has the potential to deeply enhance how we perceive and understand the environment. In this course students will develop creative and technical skills, and produce short video works that draw on research, interviews, personal perspectives, and experiences related to the environment in Yunnan Province. The course will explore aesthetic and philosophical approaches to video production, and will delve into creative techniques for storytelling, communicating information, and producing artistic works. The aim of this course is to build knowledge in both the practice and critique of video, and to strengthen an understanding of how video storytelling and experimental work can provoke profound discourses on environmental issues and ideas. The course will open exciting opportunities for students to explore cultural and natural environments through video with the goal of creating meaningful and compelling work that sheds light on this remarkable part of the world. Students may participate in the course with or without prior experience in video production.  1 Unit (3 semester-hours)

Aquatic Ecology

Explore Yunnan’s aquatic ecosystems in an indigenous cultural and historical landscape context. This course focuses on the structure and function of aquatic ecosystem processes (streams, wetlands, lakes) and invertebrate community dynamics in headwater streams in relation to physical habitat and land use. Through lectures, use of the scientific method, and field sampling data, we plan to explore the relationships of chemical, physical, and biological processes in streams. In this course, we plan to transfer understanding of aquatic conservation issues, teach how to identify macroinvertebrates to assess stream quality, introduce habitat assessment and ecological theory, and principles of aquatic ecosystems management. You will also have the opportunity to work in a small team to develop hypotheses, analyze data, and present results at the end of the session. 1 Unit (3 semester-hours)