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Innovative crane curriculum introduces environmental stewardship to young students in China

March 22, 2012

Implementing western-style environmental education programs in developing countries can be difficult. Educational systems typically grow from local traditions and culture, leading to unique curricula, methods and expectations. To be successful, new concepts must first be accepted by the community and educators.

Agricultural plots along Caohai's shoreline with the city of Weining in the distance
Agricultural plots along Cao Hai Lake's shoreline
with the city of Weining, China, in the distance.

In southwestern China's Guizhou Province, the International Crane Foundation and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies have found the perfect balance, partnering on a novel environmental education program for elementary school children that incorporates western techniques and local traditions.

The three-year initiative, funded by the Crane Foundation and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is directed by Nancy Mathews, a professor of environmental studies and director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service. It complements the Crane Foundation's ongoing rural development efforts in Guizhou, aimed at integrating community development and wildlife conservation in this poor, largely agricultural province.

Centered at the Cao Hai Nature Reserve, the elementary education program focuses on the health of Cao Hai Lake and its importance to the endangered black-necked crane. The lake and surrounding wetlands are a critical wintering area for more than 400 black-necked cranes and thousands of other migratory birds, as well as thousands of local people who rely on the wetlands.

CeCe Sieffert, a recent graduate of the Nelson Institute Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development program (M.S. '11), was the first to arrive in Guizhou Province to implement the program. While pursuing her master's degree, Sieffert spent the fall 2011 semester in the city of Weining, China, coordinating with the Crane Foundation staff and countless community members.

Seiffert, center, with the program's curriculum team.
Seiffert, center, with the program curriculum team.

Sieffert began the project by researching the troubled history of Cao Hai Lake and the environmental and social challenges facing the region. In the 1950s, the lake was mostly drained and stripped of trees to provide farmland to neighboring communities, then partially refilled in the 1980s. Today, insufficient water treatment facilities combined with a growing population have led to pollution and nutrient runoff problems.

Sieffert then identified and contacted a number of organizations doing work in the area, along with community leaders who could be key partners in the program, and organized workshops to begin developing the curriculum.

"By creating relationships, we would be able to work with a wide group in the community," Sieffert says, recalling the experience. "This would strengthen the partnership and the quality of the curriculum."

Li Fengshan, who earned a Ph.D. from the Nelson Institute Land Resources program in 1997, serves as the International Crane Foundation's China Program Coordinator and has worked in the Cao Hai community for more than 30 years. According to Sieffert, the relationships that Fengshan has built in the region are critical to the education program's success. "The collaboration throughout this project could not have occurred without his help and dedication," she says.

Seiffert, left, presents the environmental education curriculum plan to a government-hosted form on community development at the Cao Hai Nature Reserve
Seiffert, left, presents the environmental education
curriculum plan to a government-hosted forum on
community development at Cao Hai Nature Reserve.

The program curriculum, intended for fourth and fifth graders, is specifically related to black-necked cranes and uses the birds as a vehicle to teach critical lessons about Cao Hai Lake and environmental stewardship. "This includes crane behavior and the ecology of the lake, as well as food webs, general ecology and wetlands," says Sieffert.

Even with a supportive community and strong partnerships, the development of the curriculum presented unique challenges. Unlike schools in the United States, primary schools in this area of Guizhou Province have between 70 to 90 students per class and go from 7:30 in the morning until 5:30 at night.

"Because the Chinese education system is quite different from the American system, we can't just go in and offer western practices; they aren't going to work in these classrooms," Sieffert explains.

Involving teachers help raise the potential for success. "By having teachers develop the curriculum, we can create meaningful coursework," Sieffert continues. "They understand the philosophies and the culture."

Dedication to the new curriculum is apparent as Sieffert shares how involved the teachers have become, helping to write the curriculum on their own time, on a volunteer basis.

Sieffert working with the local translator, Shi Mei, during a meeting with one of the rural primary schools
Sieffert, right, works with the local translator, Shi Mei.

The local farmers association has also joined in the effort, participating in the curriculum development as well as planning summer and winter camps to continue environmental education outside of the classroom and further strengthen the community's ties to the nature reserve.

"They're offering students the opportunity to get out on the lake, doing observations and learning about crane behavior and wetland ecology," says Sieffert.

These nature clubs, which meet after school or during breaks in the academic calendar, present an opportunity to incorporate ecological principles and U.S. educational practices and activities without interfering with the government-sanctioned curriculum.

Parents, too, have become deeply invested in the program. Sieffert believes this is in part because parents see the new curriculum as an opportunity to introduce their children to western education. "They look up to the American system and want their kids to benefit from the experience of learning western ideas and philosophy," Sieffert says.

Students perform a dance that mimics crane posturing and behavior
Students mimic crane posturing
and behavior.

At a ceremony in October celebrating the partnership, teachers and students from the Weining #4 Primary School demonstrated the curriculum in practice. Students performed a dance that mimicked the black-neck crane's posturing and songs about cranes, and played games that taught the concept of overfishing, with baskets of candy representing fish in Cao Hai Lake.

"It was truly inspiring," Sieffert wrote on her blog, where she documented her experience with the project.

With the program framework developed, the teaching team in Weining continues to build the curriculum. This summer, the Nelson Institute will send another graduate student to Cao Hai to continue in developing the program curriculum, nature clubs and summer camp.

"We are excited about this opportunity to create a sustaining partnership," says Matthews, noting that this graduate internship program is novel at the Nelson Institute and represents a growing trend for professional masters programs in environmental sustainability.

Sieffert has since returned to the United States, but plans to continue consulting for the project and hopes to return to Guizhou Province in the summer. "I'm committed to seeing this project through and seeing its success," she says.