Researchers from the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute (UCA MSRI) introduced UCA Summer Camp participants to the world of Earth and Environmental Science through a field trip in the Kyrgyz Republic’s Issyk-Kul region on 27 July 2016.
A tour of the Grigorievka and Semenovka gorges offered a picturesque backdrop as the 73 camp participants explored concepts like climate change, critical mapping, ecosystem services, environmental monitoring and watershed management.
Grade 10 students from UCA’s host countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan walked around the gorges and participated in five thematic workshops amidst a landscape of cliffs, rolling pastures, coniferous forests and thorny, semi-arid hills.
MSRI researcher Vincent Lalieu introduced students to the physics and anthropogenic causes of climate change. Using base maps from a five year development project in local villages, he outlined climate change’s far-reaching effects, including projected increases in average global temperature and natural disasters. Students also learned how global processes impact communities and how adaptation plans are designed.
MSRI’s Jason Wong and Evgenii Shibkov led a workshop on the subjectivity of maps and borders. They compared Soviet-era maps of the vicinity and guided participants in a role play activity developing new maps based on different objectives.
The different features and areas of emphasis helped illustrate underlying political interests and the importance of a critical approach to producing and interpreting maps. Students learned how citizens can map their communities through the Open Street Map platform.
During the group sessions, students discussed ecosystem services and their value and impact on the environment. Trainers explained the different roles within ecosystems, including how decomposers recycle nutrients and trees absorb carbon dioxide and asked participants to rank them by importance. They also discussed different communities cooperating to preserve ecosystems with real world examples, including a nearby project promoting high pasture protection by paying community members downhill to restore pasture health in exchange for labour.
Camp participants also learned to gauge an ecosystem’s health through monitoring and identifying bio-indicators. DeKastle and Azamat Azarov helped students classify insects on the Ak Su and Chong Ak Su Rivers’ shores according to the Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, or Trichoptera families. They demonstrated low-cost methods of measuring water temperature, velocity, and turbidity, and how biological and physical characteristics reflect the river’s overall health.
Participants created and simulated local watersheds in an exercise designed to highlight their importance. With snow-capped mountains visible from Grigorievka’s high pastures, MSRI researcher Aline Rosset compared the models to natural watersheds and emphasised the significant downstream impacts of pollution.
Whilst hiking, local features and communities sparked discussions on environmental issues and their impact on Central Asian life; students saw firsthand how a mixture of erosion and human water use in upstream pastures led to cloudier and more turbid water downstream.
“The natural environment of Kyrgyzstan is normally seen as a picturesque background to local life or a government responsibility. By giving students the opportunity to explore scientific concepts in the field, MSRI inspired them to rethink how they can personally engage and lead environmental research in a context that is personal, homebound and innovative,” explained Erik Krauss, Manager of Student Affairs.
MSRI is a university-wide, interdisciplinary research centre dedicated to addressing the challenges and opportunities within Central Asian mountain communities and environments. The Institute is helping to design the curriculum for the undergraduate Earth and Environmental Sciences degree programme offered at UCA’s campus in Khorog, Tajikistan in 2017.
UCA Summer Camp was held from 20 July to 9 August 2016. Led by international and Central Asian counsellors, the Camp offered a unique academic enrichment experience for students to improve their English and maths skills, receive critical support in the university application process, and learn and share experiences with students from throughout the region through sports, drama, debate, science and field trips.