Indiana State University Newsroom

Sustainability, economic development studied during three-week China trip

August 12, 2014

Bringing textbook pages to life was the goal of Indiana State University travelers who journeyed to the other side of the world this summer.

Nine students, two professors and a staff member spent three weeks in China as part of the Environmental and Culturally Sustainable Local Economic Development (ECSLED) initiative in May.

“We talked about this stuff in the classroom, now you can see this …. It’s experiential learning,” said Mike Chambers, professor of political science. “It’s something completely different to go and stand on the edge of the world’s largest open pit coal mine and understand — OK, right over there used to be grassland and farm land. It’s now a mine.”

Chambers and John Conant, chair of the economics department, didn’t miss any opportunity to expand on these teaching moments, often lecturing at sites or on the bus.

“That’s one of the things about this trip — it’s not just ‘Let’s go do some sightseeing in China.’ There’s a very strong academic component to it, and it’s connected to the courses that we taught this spring,” Chambers said.

The spring semester prior to the trip, eight of the students took one of two classes about China’s economic transformation and rise as a world power, and one student will be conducting an independent study this fall.

The itinerary focused on seeing China’s economic development and tourism efforts and evaluating how sustainable — both culturally and environmentally — these initiatives are.

“Even on a small scale, the efforts at urbanization (is a new experience). China, just a year or so ago, became a primarily urban population,” Chambers said. “When we think of China, we think of a primarily rural population. Only a few decades ago, 80 percent of the population was rural. It crossed 50 percent urban a year or so ago.” 

The trip started in Shanghai, where the group met up with Steve Chao, who is the director of the Council on International Educational Exchange and arranged the group’s experiences there and in Wuzhen, where they learned about how the town uses and attempts to preserve water.

Chao said his goal for the trip was to provide a bonding experience that will encourage future learning abroad.

“By interacting with local community and nationals, Indiana State students, staff and faculty will have a practical understanding in Chinese traditions, culture, politics, government function, economics, as well as communication skills by utilizing the Chinese language,” Chao said. “This learning experience and skills will be advantageous for students’ future career planning and for professors’ classroom teaching and research.”

From Wuzhen, they traveled by bullet train to Beijing. Even to a seasoned traveler like Conant, the bullet train, which travels at nearly 200 miles per hour and shortens the more than 800-mile trip to five hours, was a highlight.

“That was pretty cool,” Conant said. “I enjoyed that.”

The group ventured into Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, where they toured a mosque, a highly mechanized dairy factory at the Yili Industrial Group, coal mines and grasslands.

“The infrastructure there is not great. Just a few years ago, they had a 14-day traffic jam from Inner Mongolia to Beijing. It was almost all coal trucks. They finally got it cleared up, and then a week later, there was a nine-day traffic jam,” Chambers said. “Seeing the coal trucks on the move — empty, on their way up to the area or full, leaving the area and headed down to some of the major cities — was interesting.”

A jaunt to the northeast brought the group to Liaoning University in Shenyang, where they spent four days meeting with government officials about collaboration opportunities and listening to lectures. While they were there, the university was celebrating an African Student Festival, which gave economics major Nancy Kaj, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the opportunity to represent her home country.

“She jumped right in and participated, representing the Congo, because there was no one there representing the Congo. She had a ball,” Chambers said.

The group took in some of the usual tourist sights — the Forbidden City, Great Wall — but they also visited the Urban Development Museum in Shanghai and China’s largest ship building company.

“When we do visit tourist places, we’re talking about environmental impact and how they sustain the culture, history of a place,” Conant said.

Some expectations of what they’d see in China — air pollution and lots of people — were met, but others had unexpected and potentially life-changing experiences. 

“There (are) a lot more opportunities abroad for English-speaking people than I thought. As a person who isn’t 100 percent on their career path, I learned that it wasn’t completely out of the question — with a lot of dedication — to learn an Asian language and teach English in that country, especially China,” said Spencer native Daniel Vermillion, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering technology. “This realization was very exciting — so exciting that I actually changed my goal in studying abroad this spring. I am now pursuing China and taking Chinese 101 this fall.”

Sophomore Karan Huang, a pre-med biology major, was a tourist in her native land.

“I wanted to learn more about my heritage and culture, and all the places we were visiting, were places I have never been to before,” she said. “The best part about the trip was visiting significant landmarks — Temple of Heaven, Great Wall — and learning how China has developed to become a leading nation.”

Formerly the associate director of international relations at Indiana State, Chao knows first-hand how important experiential learning is to Sycamores.

“For example, the Wuzhen trip allows students and professors to learn about preservation efforts made by the Chinese government and local community, as well as international organizations to pass down this invaluable heritage to future generations,” Chao said. “We, as global citizens in this international community, it is a collaborative responsibility for each of us to understand and accept other cultures while preserving our own.”

Lucy Moser, a senior chemistry major from Columbus, agrees.

“Because of the trip, I think my perception of the world has shifted. More than ever, I feel the connectedness of the world, and I feel that the possibilities in life are endless,” Moser said.


Photos: -- Indiana State University students, faculty and staff pose near the Great Wall of China. -- Indiana State University students, faculty and staff pose for a group photograph at the Liao Yu Fishery Group company in Dalian, China. -- Indiana State University student Nancy Kaj, second from left, represents the Democratic Republic of Congo as she dances with other students at Liaoning University’s African Student Festival. -- Indiana State students Lucy Moser, Karan Huang and Nancy Kaj pose for a photograph near a coal mine. -- A canal is seen in a village in Wuzhen, China. -- Indiana State student Lennon Lore silkworm takes a picture of silkworms. -- Indiana State student Nancy Kaj attempts to stretch silk balls out to dry. -- New construction in an old architectural style is seen in the Drum Tower neighborhood.


Contact: Mike Chambers, professor of political science at Indiana State University, 812-232-2515 or or John Conant, professor of economics at Indiana State University, 812-232-2160 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or


Story Highlights

The itinerary focused on seeing China’s economic development and tourism efforts and evaluating how sustainable — both culturally and environmentally — these programs are.

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