About the Program

Overview | Educational Objectives | Program Organizational Structure | Program Schedule | Important Dates | Program Impacts


The Asian Studies Center proposes a new collaborative program in social science research on the impact of economic growth on desertification and water resource management practices in rural, northwestern China.  Student/faculty teams will be comprised of American and Chinese researchers who will focus on the following question: How has the massive economic development mandated by the central government’s ambitious “Opening and Reform of Northwest China” (Xibei dakaifa) program affected desertification and water resource management in rural, northwest China?  This inquiry-based program contains an educational component designed to mentor young researchers through the complete process of designing a research agenda, performing primary research in the social sciences in both urban areas and rural Chinese villages, and developing collaborative research and writing skills.  It builds upon the findings and methods of a highly successful previous Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program conducted in China from 2002 to 2010.

Rural, northwest China provides an excellent venue to explore the impact of economic policies and corresponding development on water and soil resources.  For example, northwest China is particularly deficient in water and hosts two of the world’s most fragile dry land ecosystems--the Yellow River Basin loess plateau and the Tibetan highlands. The Yellow River Basin loess plateau stretches over 640,000 km2, and includes portions of Shaanxi, Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia provinces and is home to more than 90 million people, including 55 million mostly poor farmers.  Its yearly erosion of 1.6 billion tons of soil per year ranks it among the most extreme erosive climates in the world.  To date, these five northwestern provinces are among the poorest in China.  Finally, China's Environmental Protection Agency reports that the Gobi Desert expanded by 52,400 square kilometers (20,240 square miles) from 1994 to 1999, an area half the size of Pennsylvania, and is responsible for the severe dust storms that blanket much of northeast Asia in the spring.

Educational Objectives

The primary educational/training objective is to mentor young researchers through the complete process of designing a research agenda, writing funding applications, performing primary research in the social sciences at an international field site, evaluating data, and constructing a final report.  The program will also provide all program members with an opportunity to boost their professional development skills both here and abroad through interactions with the students, academics, and government officials of another culture.  Additionally, the rural focus of this program will address the lack of astute rural researchers in the social sciences.  Finally, activities are also designed to internationalize the research environment both at Pitt and our partner institutions in China. 

Program Organizational Structure

This program will partner two American and three Chinese institutions. They are Northwest Socioeconomic Development Research Center (NSDRC) (Xibei shehui jingji fazhan yanjiu zhongxin) of Northwest University (Xibei daxue), Center for Historical Environment and Socio-Economic Development in Northwest China of Shaanxi Normal University (lishi huanjing yu jingji shehui fazhan yanjiu zhongxin), Peking University (Beijing daxue), The East-West Center of the University of Hawaii and the Asian Studies Center of the University of Pittsburgh.

Three senior academicians will be involved in all phases of the mentoring process: Dr. James Cook, Associate Director of the Asian Studies Center; Dr. Roberta Soltz, Bloomsburg University, Biology department and Science Talent Expansion; Dr. Pierre F. Landry, Department of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh.  His focus is primarily on reform in China.

Because of the nature of the field experience in China, the program will be closely mentored. Three to four research teams will be established.  Each team will consist of three American undergraduate students, a graduate research assistant, and a dedicated faculty mentor. In China, the research teams will be assisted by an equal number of Chinese academics and students who are sponsored by their own universities.  The undergraduate participants will be recruited from both PITT and other institutions across the United States.  Undergraduate student participants will receive funding for most China-related expenses (plane ticket and per diem, but no visa, laundry, and personal items), $200 book fund, and a significant research stipend.  Graduate student mentors will receive similar support.  NSF mandates participation be restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Program Schedule

The program will take place at the University of Pittsburgh, Northwest University (Xi’an), and in rural villages in Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, China (see map).

After phase four, PITT will maintain contact with participating members for a period of five years in order to build a collegial cadre of “China/Environmental Hands” and to ascertain the impact that this experience made upon their long-run academic plans.

Important dates

February 15: The deadline for application
April 9: completed selection of the final 15 scholars
June 12: Program starts at Pitt
June 21: Arrive in Beijing
June 22: Arrive in Xi’an
July 11: Students depart from China
July 22: Program ends

Program impacts

  1. It will advance knowledge about the impact of sweeping reform and policy implementation in one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems and among some of the most marginalized populations in China.
  2. Its interdisciplinary approach will improve understanding across natural and social science disciplines.
  3. It provides an ideal setting for constructive, international exchange while educating the next generation of social and natural scientists.
  4. It will contribute significantly to the scholarship of integration while internationalizing our and partner institution(s).
  5. It builds on the considerable strengths inherent in interdisciplinary issues with international implications by developing collaborative international relationships in a subject area that is significant, exciting and appropriate for young researchers conducting primary research in international and occasionally challenging settings.

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Updated March 27, 2012 | This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. SMA-1213575