Indiana State University Newsroom

Professors, students learn about sustainability during Thailand trip

August 24, 2011

Indiana State University senior James McCombs learned during a trip to the other side of the world just how common life's problems can be.

McCombs traveled with four other students and six professors from Indiana State visiting Thailand for three weeks in July to learn about local development projects that are environmentally and socially sustainable in the country. The visit was part of the Environmental and Culturally Sustainable Local Economic Development initiative, or ECSLED. The ISU group, along with faculty members from ECSLED partner institutions Liaoning and Liaoning Normal universities in China, visited sustainability projects and ECSLED partner universities in Thailand.

"The ECSLED project reinforced my belief that people share the same set of problems and face the same challenges no matter where in the world they are," said McCombs, a social studies education major from Terre Haute. "When I am a teacher I will be able to explain to my students that the local issues we are studying about also have a global application."

At one location, the ECSLED group learned about water markets, where boats serve as the shops for vendors selling goods. The group showed Thai project participants how to monitor water quality, which needs to be maintained in renovating a current water market or creating a new one, said John Conant, chair of the ISU economics department who traveled on the ECSLED trip.

The ECSLED team also learned about reforestation efforts that would allow rural agricultural and craft based development projects to mitigate some of the negative effects of globalization in an environmentally sustainable way. The country was devastated in the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which started with the collapse of Thailand's currency, Conant said.

The crisis had "really drastic implications, not only for the urban population but certainly for the rural, almost subsistence farmers and craftsmen in the villages as well," Conant added, "so the government is trying to create a system, they call it the ‘sufficiency economy,' which is intended to create local development projects to protect the rural population from external forces like the financial crisis of 1997."

The ECSLED partnership aims to create more collaboration between the partnering universities, which include the Chinese universities and four institutions in Thailand: Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, Chiang Mai Rajabhat University, Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University and Rajabhat Maha Sarakham University.

Alliances with international partners haven't always maximized their potential, Conant said. The economics department at Indiana State has hosted more than 10 visiting scholars during the last decade, Conant said.

The ECSLED initiative is designed to foster a work relationship between the partnering institutions on topics that would benefit all the members, Conant said. Faculty members of ISU's partner universities were interested in the sustainability projects, and ISU students could learn more about them, he added.

The project provided an unexpected opportunity for ISU senior Cole Britton. The legal studies major from Greenwood first heard about the trip from McCombs, and he thought it would be a good alternative to studying abroad for a semester.

The project taught him about sustainability issues, and how it effects locations around the world, from Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. to influencing property rights in Brazil, and how land use can have devastating effects, he said.

"The problems concerning the land and water sources can be daunting," Britton said, "and this type of collaboration is supposed to help with meeting the challenges all countries face."

He said that many people in Thailand spoke English, which helped break down communication barriers.

"Their hospitality was amazing," he added. "I now have friends from around the world, which because of social networking and e-mail, I can now stay in touch, and I have been in contact with them since returning to the U.S."

ISU sociology professor Tom Steiger, another faculty member on the trip, joined a professor from Thailand to a local morning market not typically witnessed by visitors because it is set up at 1 a.m. and taken down just six hours later.

"As a professor, my Thailand experience drives home the need to educate ISU students for the global economy and how to navigate it," Steiger said. "Success in international relations is not simply a matter of the world learning English. Many Thais learn English, but communication is still very challenging because of cultural differences, which if not taken into consideration, will assure failure of working together."

McCombs enjoyed speaking with professors and students in Thailand, and how people from diverse backgrounds interpret events differently.

"The ECSLED project was a unique opportunity for me to do hands-on learning in the subjects that I will be teaching," McCombs said. "I thought that it would be beneficial for me to have real-world experience in areas that I'm interested in."

Photo: (Submitted Photo) - The ECSLED group from Indiana State University poses at the entrance to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The members of the group included, from left to right, Brian Kilp, Denise Sobieski, William Mitchell, Allison Chambers, Mike Chambers, Laura Mott, Tom Steiger, Steven Aldrich, Cole Britton, James McCombs and John Conant.

Photo: (Submitted Photo) - The ECSLED group at the Hmong Hill Tribe Village at Doi Pui outside Chiang Mai, and is located in the Doi Suthep - Pui National Park. The group, from left to right, consists of a Chiang Mai Rajabhat University student Jinglei Bai, CMRU Vice President Thammakit Thammo, Cole Britton, Tom Steiger, Steven Aldrich, village chief Amnuay FeungfooKitjakarn, James McCombs, John Conant, Karmon Kuhn, Laura Mott, Li Jianhong and Li Bo.

Photo: - John Conant

Photo: - Tom Steiger

Contact: John Conant, chair, department of economics, Indiana State University, 812-237-2160 or

Writers: Bethany Donat, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773; Austin Arceo, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or



Story Highlights

Five students and six professors visited Thailand to learn about local development projects that are environmentally and socially sustainable in the country.

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