Wolf Ridge executive director Pete Smerud left China with a bold commitment from the Mangrove Conservation Foundation — they set a goal of getting 50% of the school children in Shenzhen China to have an outdoor-based learning experience as part of their school program by the end of their next strategic planning cycle.

"And Shenzhen is a city of 20 million people. So 50% of the school children, they couldn’t even tell me what that number was, but it’s hundreds of thousands," Smerud said. "They were setting a goal to achieve in eight years what we've done at Wolf Ridge in roughly 50 years. That's awe-inspiring."

Smerud returned from his two-week whirlwind trip to southern China on Jan. 16. He traveled on behalf of Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, a nonprofit environmental education program in Finland, Minnesota, and as a representative of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, a nonprofit that works to build lasting relationships between citizens of the U.S. and China.

Smerud visited many nature centers in southern China and Taiwan from Jan. 2 through Jan. 15 to advise on how China’s environmental nongovernmental organizations can create sustainable facilities and educational materials, experiential educational techniques and staff training methods. He presented on the Wolf Ridge model, answered hundreds of questions regarding curriculum, classroom set-up, academic standards and more.

"For example, it was shocking to most people I talked with that Wolf Ridge is a nonprofit, and we are an accredited school. That just kind of blew their minds in China," Smerud said. "There, the educators tend to go to the classrooms and do science-based programming. The act of going out of the school out into the nature area and into the field and counting that towards educational contact hours, that doesn't happen there. And it's something that's so entrenched in our culture here in Minnesota."

Pete Smerud presents on the Wolf Ridge model of environmental education at a nature center in Shenzhen. (Photo submitted)
Pete Smerud presents on the Wolf Ridge model of environmental education at a nature center in Shenzhen. (Photo submitted)

Yet, Smerud found himself impressed with the scale of the nature centers in Shenzhen. Places like the Mangrove Conservation Foundation Center will see 30,000 people in an average weekend morning.

The city's population has skyrocketed over the last 30 years, from about 30,000 people to more than 20 million. Innovation is part of what has driven it's growth.

"The scale is mind blowing ... It's a special economic reform zone in the country, similar to like a Silicon Valley in the U.S. It's place to dare to do things differently, which is why it makes sense to build this new environmental education model there," Smerud said.

A view of the entrance to one of the nature centers in Shenzhen that Pete Smerud visited during the first two weeks of January this year. (Photo submitted)
A view of the entrance to one of the nature centers in Shenzhen that Pete Smerud visited during the first two weeks of January this year. (Photo submitted)

That vast, speedy growth leads to some cultural phenomena that Smerud witnessed on the tail end of his trip. Smerud left just before the Chinese New Year on Jan. 25, which is around the time when many who moved to Shenzhen travel home to celebrate with their families. He also made it back before the new coronavirus limited travel to the country.

"They call it the great human migration because millions of people travel back to their ancestral homelands," Smerud said. "I saw the very beginning of it, where you had lines in the airport that were three to four times longer than on the way over at the start of the month. Which is why, when you throw a virus into the mix, you can understand why it's the worst timing."

Speaking of viruses, Smerud reported he is in excellent health following his return to Minnesota, and said he's most looking forward to continuing the partnership with nature centers in China.

"I hope we continue to work together to develop things further," Smerud said. "It was an incredible experience that I hope leads to more."