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Course Gives Students Chance to Participate in China Conservation Planning

Students walking in Kunshan, China - Cui Liu

Duke Kunshan University (DKU) administrators received some help from their own students as they planned the second phase of the Kunshan, China, campus expansion this spring.

Three students used skills learned in a course on conservation planning and monitoring led by Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions senior fellow Elizabeth Losos to develop biodiversity recommendations for the expansion, slated for completion in 2021.

“DKU is located in a biologically significant region. Rapid urbanization in the area has great potential both to affect positively and negatively the conservation of biodiversity and other ecosystem services on campus,” said Losos. “With the university just beginning phase two of its physical expansion, we saw an opportunity to allow our students to use conservation planning tools to possibly help influence a real-world project and allow DKU an opportunity to show leadership in China by developing innovative approaches to address conservation through campus development.” 

The students spent the semester learning how to develop a conservation plan and visiting neighboring sites for ideas that would help address environmental concerns that construction could pose on campus. They finished out their course with multiple presentations to the DKU Executive Vice Chancellor Denis Simon, the operations team, local Kunshan government representatives, and the newly hired landscape architectural firms.

“Our goal with the Conservation Action Plan for DKU is to incorporate biodiversity conservation elements into the campus expansion and garden designs to promote native species, improve human well-being, and advance DKU’s position as an environmental leader,” said Julie Mao, who is finishing her second year of the international Master’s in Environmental Policy program (iMEP).

The students’ presentations and final report to administrators aimed to restore and enhance the natural ecosystems of Kunshan by (1) planting native vegetation to restore the natural ecosystem and nurture native, endemic and threatened flora and fauna; (2) building forest and wetland corridors to increase habitat connectivity in an urban area; (3) incorporating green roofs on buildings to provide a space for native plants and butterfly populations to thrive; and (4) transitioning to a naturalistic landscaping approach to promote a healthy ecosystem for native species.Students presenting at DKU

“The students are smart and practical,” said Ning Bai, associate director in the DKU Office of Construction Management and Planning. Bai is supervising the expansion project and attended one of the student’s presentations. “Their recommendations are based on Liz and the students’ thoughtful thinking,” he said. “The designers like these recommendations.”

Bai said he would like to incorporate the student’s ideas into the expansion’s design and construction, noting that the transition to naturalistic landscaping and native plant adoption recommendations will likely find their way into the final design.

“This is exactly the kind of course we want to offer both graduate and undergraduate students here at DKU,” Simon said. “The ability to solve real problems, to translate theory into practice, and to contribute to one’s community are all meaningful hallmarks of a DKU education.”

For the students, the experience of using industry tools and seeing their recommendations gain momentum will have lasting effects.

“This course is the most practical course I’ve taken,” said Cui (Janet) Liu, who is obtaining her master’s degree in environmental policy at DKU. “This course taught me how to identify conservation targets and all kinds of threats and structure effective strategies in a systematic manner. Since I’d like to advance a career in the field of conservation after graduation, I believe I can frequently benefit from what I’ve learned from this course and our professors.”

--By Erin McKenzie

Images courtesy of Cui Liu and ChuChu Zhang.