National Sun Yat-sen University
From Mountains to Sea: Nature and Ecology Exploration Program in Slovenia
- International Cooperation: Explore the Nature and Ecology of Slovenia
- Learning Outside the Classrooms: Broaden Your Horizons
Since 2009, the Office of International Affairs at National Sun Yat-sen University has been offering grants to encourage professors to cooperate with international academic institutions for short-term courses and provide opportunities for students to attend the courses abroad. Since 2015, through the support of this “Short-term Overseas Research and Study Program,” Prof. Hsueh-Wen Chang from the Department of Biological Science has been cooperating with the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia for a Slovenian nature and ecology exploration program and taking students to Slovenia every summer.
International Cooperation: Explore the Nature and Ecology of Slovenia
Located in central Europe, Slovenia is situated in the westernmost point on the Balkans and surrounded by Italy, Austria and Croatia. On the border of Slovenia and Austria lies the Julian Alps, an eastern mountain range in the world-famous Alps. In another direction, the southwest coast of Slovenia faces the Adriatic Sea. In Slovenia, over half of the land is covered by forests, making it one of the countries with the largest area of woods in Europe. With mountains, sea, forests and the renowned Karst topography, Slovenia offers abundant natural beauty, which creates a diverse ecosystem.
In an academic seminar, Prof. Chang met Prof. Ivan Kos from the Department of Biology at the University of Ljubljana (UL). Prof. Kos introduced Prof. Chang to the University Botanic Garden Ljubljana and Slovenia’s natural and ecological environment. As Slovenia’s natural ecology is different from that in Taiwan, Prof. Chang considered, “it would be a great opportunity for students to explore if I bring them here.” In classes, he often talks about the natural ecology in the Mediterranean Sea area and the Alps. He believes “if the students can observe the ecology in person, they can learn much better than merely sitting in the classroom.” Therefore, with the OIA grant, he started cooperating with UL professors for a one-week Slovenian nature and ecology exploration program in summer. Until 2020, Prof. Chang has been taking students to Slovenia for five years.
The program usually starts with the visit to University Botanic Garden Ljubljana, where Prof. Bavcon Jože, the Director of the Garden, will introduce the plants in the Garden to students. Besides the Garden, the exploration also includes mountains, forests, and waterside, where Prof. Ivan Kos will introduce the ecological environment along the journey and lead students to observe the insects, plants and animals, such as lizards, toads, birds, bushes, and coniferous forests. For a few times, the UL professors also arranged UL students to join the ecology exploration program to share their knowledge and experiences. Prof. Chang mentioned because of the difference in geography and climate, many species that can’t be seen in Taiwan can be observed in Slovenia, such as Betula in the temperate zone, western roe deer in European mountains, etc. Besides, for some animals in Taiwan, different species can be found in Slovenia. Take slowworm, for instance, “Hart’s Glass Lizard (Dopasia harti)” can be spotted in the mountains of Taiwan, while “Pallas’s glass lizard (Sheltopusik)” is the representative species in European mountains. Through the program, NSYSU students can observe the diverse ecosystem in Slovenia on-site and gain a deeper understanding of their biological science studies.
Learning Outside the Classrooms: Broaden Your Horizons
Hong-Wei Lin, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Science, recalled that it is a unique experience for him to observe the ecosystem he could hardly see in Taiwan and get to know the local Slovenian culture. He took “Smrekova Draga,” a place in the Idrija Global Geopark, for example. “We observed a unique terrain called frost hollow and a special plant community there,” said Hong-Wei. Due to the depth and shape of the hollow, cold air tends to settle down at the bottom, making the temperature lower than that at the top. Prof. Chang points out that this leads to the peculiar phenomenon of “thermal and vegetation inversion.” Usually, from low to high altitude, the vegetation varies from deciduous to coniferous forests. However, the vegetation distribution in this frost hollow is the opposite as coniferous trees grow at the bottom and deciduous ones at the top. To Prof. Chang and the students, they had never seen this special phenomenon before they visited Slovenia. The program in Slovenia has helped broaden their horizon.
Hong-Wei Lin added, for this educational trip, in addition to learning the knowledge in biological science, he also experienced the Slovenian culture by visiting vineyards in the southwest and tasting local food, which he found is “totally different from Taiwan!” Hong-Wei also mentioned that as they stayed in Slovenia for only one week, he believes there are still many natural or cultural wonders worthy of further exploration. “If I have a chance to take part in the program again, I would learn the English scientific names of the animals and plants there in advance, so I can learn faster when the professors introduce the ecosystem there to us,” Hong-Wei said. Another graduate student, Ssu-Hsien Wang, added, “We highly recommend this program to the students interested in the field of ecosystem and biology. However, in this program, as we were climbing mountains most of the time, which consumed much energy, it is important to consider your body strength before deciding to join.”
The biggest reward for Prof. Chang from this program is to gain a deep understanding of the European ecosystem. He points out, “it is rare to see the ecosystems of the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea at the same time in one single country, which can only be seen in northeastern Italy and Slovenia.” Prof. Chang also shares that as he has observed many wild plants in Slovenia that are different from those in Taiwan, his firsthand experiences make his lectures more appealing to students. “I also expect students to observe the ecosystem on-site to see real life in the wild, rather than on Discovery channels or videos. I believe the firsthand experiences can broaden students’ horizons,” said Prof. Chang. When the pandemic of COVID-19 stabilizes, Prof. Chang plans to continue cooperating with UL or takes students to Africa or South America to explore nature and the ecosystem there.