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Lakehead University Magazine Spring/Summer 2007

Field Studies In China

Geography professors David Kemp and Will Wilson are introducing students to the practicalities of field research

By Colin Anderson. Photos by David Kemp

En route to the Yi Village

For four weeks in the spring of 2005, a group of 12 graduate andundergraduate students from the Department of Geography called the town of Lijiang, China home. Using the town as a base camp, they explored the mountains, forests, and growing urban settlements in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. But this was no idle vacation from schoolwork; it was part of a course designed to introduce students to the practicalities of conducting geographical field research in unfamiliar and international locales.

According to David Kemp, Professor of Geography at Lakehead University and co-leader with Professor Will Wilson of the new International Field Studies course, “The program is giving students a chance to directly improve the quality of life for Yunnan by helping to promote eco-tourism and environmentally responsible development.”

Yangtse River flowing into Tiger Leaping Gorge Kemp and Wilson have long been committed to the importance of environmental geography, and saw an opportunity to share their passion with students while conducting their own research. “Travel broadens the mind,” Kemp says, “and for Yunnan this is important. It is one place in China that hasn’t yet changed as much as the rest of the country.” The course gives students the chance to learn from professors doing real field research, but also requires that they come up with their own projects.

For Sarah Breen (HBA’06), a student who participated in the trip, the experience was priceless. Under the guidance of David Kemp, she developed a research project that assessed the effectiveness of small-scale hydro as an alternative to major dams, which are considered to be environmentally destructive. The International Field Studies course was a welcome change for Breen, who says that, in most classes, “You talk about field work, but you don’t actually do it.”

The unpredictable nature of international study often means that budgets, research techniques, and even routine activities must “adapt on the fly” to unexpected situations. This type of real-world experience will help Breen in pursuit of a Master’s degree, but she also stresses the benefit that Kemp’s class has had on students entering the work world. “Employers love to hear about your practical experience, not just vague ideas taken from a textbook. It is a massive step up.”

The model developed for the first International Field Studies course will now be used by other professors within the Department of Geography to take students abroad. They will surely find an experience that is both enjoyable and beneficial – one which is simply unparalleled by traditional classroom teaching.


The International Field Studies course originally sprang from an idea conceived by Will Wilson, an Associate Professor of Geography, who had asked Kemp to join him in China. The two are currently engaged in a project which compares several well-documented environmental indicators with conditions as they exist today. Because Yunnan has long been a destination for explorers, settlers, and entrepreneurs, Kemp and Wilson have the ability to see a clear image of past geography. The data that they collect on their trips is being used to track development patterns in Yunnan, keeping a close eye on the effect that global warming is having on the area. “The goal,” Kemp says, “is to preserve the environment while providing the people there with a sufficient income.”

Dr. David Kemp & Dr. Will Willson Wilson agrees, saying that their work “is about more than simply entering a community, studying it, and using the research for our own personal gain.”

Wilson and Kemp will continue to develop their relationships with the farmers, students, businesses, and international organizations working locally in Yunnan on their next research trip, which they intend to take by 2008.
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