In May 2007, eight Yale undergraduates signed up to launch Panda Quest, a summer camp in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in China. The long-term success of the program depended on its first summer.

Eighty percent of the world’s giant pandas surviving in the wild live in Sichuan, where there are 25 nature reserves to protect them. Chengdu is also home to the largest giant panda eco-park in the world, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Combining English immersion and cultural exchange with environmental education, Panda Quest works to bring about dialogue between Chinese and American students, and, most importantly, to foster an appreciation for nature preservation. Each of the Yale students headed classes of eight Chinese students, and the team held multiple brainstorming sessions to create activities and plan the curriculum for the groundbreaking program.

It was a success.

Panda Quest ran from July 8 to Aug. 3 in two sessions, with 164 students ranging from fifth-graders to college sophomores. The students were split into eight classes that came together for occasional group activities and field trips twice a week. It was run in a summer camp style with games, arts and crafts, drama, sports, dance, debate and music used to teach the students about the English language, American culture and environmental issues.

The field trips formed an important component of the Panda Quest program. The tour to the Chengdu Panda Base was lead by two American scientists, Dr. Sarah Bexell, the Director of Public Education at the Base, and Emily King, former intern of the National Zoo of Washington, D.C. and now a teacher at Sichuan University. Bexell and King have been studying the Chengdu pandas for many years.

Through the duration of Panda Quest, the teachers and the program leaders made an alarming discovery. Many of the younger students demonstrated startling ignorance about how to appropriately and responsibly treat the environment, especially animals. During field trips, students would purchase beetles, rabbits, hamsters, squirrels and even a puppy from street vendors. And for the most part, these pets were treated as forms of mere entertainment. One child, after seeing his rabbit die, told his teacher, “Game over,” epitomizing the irresponsible attitude they seemed to hold toward animals. In response to this observation, the program saw the need to emphasize the program’s original goal: to educate responsible treatment of the environment.

Qian Lin, a native of Sichuan and the organizer of the program, believes that one vital way to instill a value of the environment is through education — one that Panda Quest attempts to provide.

The Panda Quest program had a profound impact on both the Chinese students and the American teachers. The teachers, who lived with host families of students in the program, and were able to explore the city outside of program hours. Though most of the teachers did not speak Chinese before coming, a few began to rapidly and actively learn the language and some have continued their language studies in the United States. Three of the teachers remain in China, continuing to teach in Chengdu and Nanjing.

In its commitment to promoting environmental consciousness in China, Panda Quest’s goals are in line with Yale’s. President Richard Levin, in his speech at the Asia Society in Hong Kong during the Yale Delegation to China in May 2007, spoke of the adverse effects of China’s lightning growth on the environment and the need to confront the environmental challenge through international collaboration. Panda Quest hopes to take on this challenge at the most fundamental level.

Nora Jacobsen is a sophomore in Saybrook College.