Sustainable China – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Sustainable China

“A real eye-opener”-that’s what this summer’s short course in China was for seven students, who traveled throughout the country with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Darrin Magee, the course organizer, and Associate Professor of Economics Tom Drennen. The course, titled “Sustainable China” and funded by the Freeman Foundation, is one of an increasingly long and diverse list of HWS summer study abroad courses. 

“The goal of the course was to understand firsthand the major environmental issues in China and how the government and non-governmental organizations address them,” says Magee.  From the outset, the course was designed to understand the challenges China faces of meeting growing demands for necessities such as energy and fresh water, while mitigating the negative impacts of rapid economic development on water, air, soil, and human health.

The group began in Beijing, where they visited NGOs like the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, the Public Interest Law Institute and The Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots Program.  They also visited the largest materials recycling market in Beijing, where hundreds of vehicles converge every night to offload the city’s recyclable waste, which is then sold to brokers to be fed back into the manufacturing process. 

“I can talk about recycling in class, but it’s another thing entirely to take students to a recycling center like this,” says Magee.  “Here they could really see the different relationship between waste and recycling.”


After three days in Beijing, the group traveled to Yunnan Province in southwestern China. There, students took Chinese language and culture classes at Yunnan University in Kunming, the provincial capital, where Magee has spent significant time conducting research on Chinese water resources development.  Students learned Chinese painting techniques, played gourd flutes and got a firsthand glimpse of how different life can be in the border areas of southwestern China compared to life in the cities.

“Traveling with Professor Magee was phenomenal,” says Trevor Gionet ’12.  “His experience with the Chinese language and culture allowed us as foreigners to get a taste, sometimes quite literally, of the true Chinese experience.”

The group then traveled to northern Yunnan, where they stayed in an environmental education center run by Yunnan EcoNetwork and got an idea of village life in rural China.  They rounded out their three-week visit in Shanghai, where they toured BaoSteel, the third-largest producer of rolled steel in China, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition and the Shanghai Museum.

In addition to seeing, as Magee says, “a lot more than the tourist version of China,” students also had the opportunity to visit important cultural sites in and around Beijing, such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

“I was fascinated with China after taking the ‘Contemporary China’ course,” says Amy Norris ’11.  “We watched a documentary that showed how interdependent the U.S. and China are and highlighted how ignorant we both can be about the other’s culture.  It made me want to take Chinese and go to China.”


Throughout the course, students met regularly with Magee and with local experts in China to discuss the nature and extent of changes occurring in contemporary China and the ramifications of those changes on human and environmental health.

“I’ve always had a huge interest in environmental science,” says Gionet.  “The things that aren’t told in the news reports and magazines are what really influenced me.  China is on the forefront of environmental sustainability-not necessarily because they want to help the environment but rather because it’s a necessity for them.”

“They find ways to reuse the little things, stuff like runoff from air conditioner condensers, that we completely forget about,” says Norris.  “It was amazing-every time you move you’re learning something.  It was more difficult than my overly optimistic 20-year-old brain anticipated, but just because it was tough doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Gionet agrees: “This was probably the best learning experience I’ve had in my entire life.”

Students maintained a journal, and upon returning to the United States, completed a final assignment, in which they used their new, firsthand perspectives to think critically, Magee says, “about what sustainability means in different parts of China-what it means environmentally, economically, culturally and politically.”