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Winter Break in New Zealand

Jan. 13, 2014 – By Bob Smith

Bob Smith led 18 students from five different colleges at Virginia Tech to the south island of New Zealand during the winter break to study resource conservation, and the natural and social history of the country (Sustaining Human Societies and the Natural Environment).

New Zealand separated early from the ancient continent Gondwana, and this long isolation created an island nation with a unique natural heritage. It was one of the last areas to be settled by Europeans in the mid 1800s. Many of the plants and animals that have evolved here are quite unique. The goal of this course was to use New Zealand as a case-study to better understand relationships between human societies and the natural environment.


Students climbing the Fox Glacier in western New Zealand. Students climbing the Fox Glacier in western New Zealand.

Our program focused on topics related to sustainable development through educational travel, service learning activities, field trips, lecture presentations and seminars, and coursework exercises. Much of the time was spent in the forests, on farms, and near/on the water to fully understand the interactions between humans and the environment. As a service project, students spent one day deconstructing decks and fences that were severely damaged during the major earthquake over two years ago in Christ Church. Using natural and social science perspectives, we emphasized the human impacts on natural resources and explored sustainable use and conservation issues.

Students spent time studying the indigenous culture and even got to hear from one of the tribal leaders. They had the opportunity to go sea kayaking and swim with dolphins as part of the study of society’s impact on wildlife. The impact of a changing climate was demonstrated as we climbed the Fox Glacier. Many of the students stated that this education abroad experience was a life changing event for them and hope that they will continue to study the sustainability issues that were highlighted in this class.



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