Education About Asia: Online Archives

Experiencing and Teaching the Geography of Nepal

Back to search results
Download PDF


Photo of people and the banner
Return to Kathmandu. Photo by Helen Sherpa

In summer 1997, thirteen elementary and secondary school teachers from Oregon participated in a month-long geography field program in Nepal. The “Teachers’ Workshop in Nepal” (TWIN Project), funded by the U.S. Department of Education, through Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad and by the Oregon Geographic Alliance (OGA), Portland State University (PSU), and the Himalayan Research Bulletin, was developed and implemented by faculty at PSU, Western Oregon University, and Cascade High School in Oregon. Its goal was to expand participants’ understanding and appreciation of other peoples and places while providing hands-on training in techniques of field research within geography. Group Projects Abroad are intended to broaden and strengthen international awareness and scholarship in liberal arts and humanities; a particular target of the program in recent years has been K-12 education.

TWIN was intended to introduce teachers to Nepal and the Himalayas, and especially to the environmental and cultural complexities of the allocation and management of natural resources in Nepal. Such issues are particularly relevant to many of Oregon’s teachers. Oregon shares with Nepal a mountainous spine, high and dry desert, wet, green lowland, and productive inner valleys. A land of farmers, herders, and a skyrocketing population of city folk, Nepal, like Oregon, struggles to cope with accelerating change in society and economy. Nepal, like Oregon, must find ways to reconcile competing demands for the natural resources that support its people.

TWIN was planned (1) to give teachers an experience of another place and its peoples; (2) to prepare teachers to infuse their classrooms and curricula with new international studies materials and to share their experiences with the larger community; (3) to engage teachers in geography-based field work in the Himalayas, promoting an understanding of the environment and appreciation for resource use and conservation practices in Nepal, and providing a global context for Oregon resource questions.

TWIN was also designed to enhance teachers’ geographic knowledge. Since the inception in the 1980s of the twin stimuli of the National Geographic Society’s Geographic Alliance Network and the Goals 2000 federal legislation for implementation of national geography standards, geographic education in K-12 schools has been in the process of a comprehensive transformation. Teachers’ perceptions of geography are no longer confined to names of
state capitals and mountain ranges, and teachers are being given access to the most up-todate content and tools of the discipline. The result of the Alliance activity and the implementation of national and statewide geographic standards has been the development of programs such as TWIN.

The Oregon Geographic Alliance, established and funded by the National Geographic Society in 1986, was a key partner in TWIN, both in terms of funding and design. The OGA’s purpose is to enhance and improve geographic education in Oregon, in schools, and in the community. To this end, OGA has directed teacher education institutes, sponsored teacher presentations at national meetings, worked with teachers to develop model lessons and model curriculum materials, and contributed extensively to efforts in education reform in Oregon.

Oregon teachers in particular were ripe for the experiential opportunities the TWIN Project provided. Many of Oregon’s teachers work at a great distance from Portland, the only large city in the state, and their access to people and resources from other cultures has been limited. In addition, Oregon property tax limitations, reducing school funding just when education reform has been mandated, have meant that teachers have fewer resources to teach an ever-expanding curriculum. TWIN has helped fill the breach by providing teachers with content, materials, and dissemination outlets. Teachers selected for TWIN were eager to commit not only to the rigorous field experience planned for Nepal, but also to the ongoing curriculum development obligations that followed.


Geography educators have noted that “[w]orthwhile field experiences require an extraor­dinary amount of planning and preparation time,”1 and TWIN was no exception. Planning began more than a year in advance in order to bring the partnership together, identify sites and activities, organize affiliations in Nepal, make trav­el and accommodation arrange­ments, select participants, and plan long-term elements.

Field experience in Nepal, and development and dissemi­nation of curricular materials constituted TWIN’s two major programmatic components. Project staff expertise encom­passed cultural and physical geography, field techniques, geography education, and sub­stantial familiarity with Nepal. TWIN was designed for fifteen participants, twelve teachers and three staff members—the optimum configuration for the complex itinerary. As a result of pretrip personnel changes, thir­teen teachers, one of the origi­nal Project organizers, and a PSU graduate student substitute recruited in Nepal actually par­ticipated in TWIN’s field com­ponent; all three organizers are currently involved in posttrip development and dissemination of curricula.

Oregon teachers, regardless of discipline area or grade level, who had completed an OGA summer institute, were eligible to competitively apply for TWIN. The majority of teachers who participate in OGA pro­grams have teaching responsibil­ities outside of geography, including subject areas such as history, English as a Second Language, earth science, biolo­gy, chemistry, special education, civics, mathematics, physics, environmental education, and preservice education. TWIN staff planned a wide variety of cultural and physical geography field activities, thus ensuring that teachers with primary teach­ing responsibilities outside geography would have experi­ences beneficial to their levels and subject areas.

Map of Sagarmatha
FIGURE 1: Location map: Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park/Khumbu
Source: Brower, B. 1990. Range Conservation and Sherpa Livestock Management in Khumbu, Nepal. Mountain Research and Development 10 (1): 34–42. Used with permission.


Orientation focused on trip goals, travel logistics (health, safety, and equipment), cultural awareness, fieldwork, and back­ground on Nepal and the Himalayas. Teachers prepared for the Project by reviewing a variety of materials on Nepal. In mid-May, 1997, the teachers convened for a one-day general orientation at PSU; in mid-July the teachers participated in a four-day orientation at the Mal­heur Field Station in eastern Oregon, a site chosen because it offered hikes at elevation, thus enabling the staff to identify problems associated with high-elevation trekking.

Participants were given a preview of Himalya-related rig­ors and preliminary experience in how to use the field equip­ment and collect data. It ensured, further, that partici­pants would be compatible, committed, and physically and emotionally up to what would be a very demanding experi­ence.

Prior to the field orienta­tion, the teachers were required to submit draft curriculum pro­posals consisting of model units and connections to state and national geography standards, and during the orientation, par­ticipants shared the units. Staff anticipated that most draft pro­posals would be radically altered upon the teachers’ return to the United States, reflecting the impact of their experiences and learning in Nepal. After the final orientation at Malheur Field Sta­tion, participants headed for Nepal under the direction of the Project organizer most involved in planning this part of TWIN.


The Nepal experience was intended to provide a general understanding of Nepal and its extraordinarily diverse peoples and landscapes, coupled with a very particular encounter with one place—Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park —its res­ident people, and the issues of resource conservation and man­agement played out there.

Project timing was dictated by the Nepalese rainy summer season. Monsoon brings with it the possibility of considerable destruction and disruption (as an example: at the end of the TWIN Project, wash-outs of all principal roads cut off access to Kathmandu). By spending most of the time in the high moun­tains, TWIN participants were able to escape the monsoon’s most forceful effects. Summer offered other advantages. It is a productive time for the study of vegetation, slope processes, and weather. Monsoon also repre­sents the slack time for the study area’s resident Sherpa people, who are preoccupied with tourists in the dry seasons; residents had more free time for interaction with participants.

Meticulous advance plan­ning was put to the test in the field. That some plans were bril­liantly realized, some failed utterly, and serendipity played an important role in the ultimate success of TWIN comes as no surprise to those who have planned international field pro­jects, particularly in Nepal.


The initial five-day orientation was arranged in conjunction with Cornell University’s Nepal Project. The TWIN teachers stayed in student housing in the ancient Kathmandu Valley kingdom of Kirtipur, where Nepal’s principal university’s main campus is located. Fed Nepali meals and ministered to by Cornell-Nepal Project staff, the group ventured from Kir­tipur to explore Kathmandu fur­ther while also attending daily Nepali language lessons and a variety of lectures by Tribuvan faculty and other local experts. The group, accompanied by both professional guides and well informed university stu­dents, visited the major temple complexes and historic sites of the valley.

In a first exercise in field­work, TWIN teachers were sent on a transect through Kathman­du’s palace square and rabbit-warren bazaar. Though govern­ment schools were on holiday, the group visited one of Nepal’s notable schools for girls, St. Mary’s, and Raato Bungala, an innovative private school mod­eled on the Banks Street School in New York.

For a group with very little experience of foreign travel, Kirtipur at first presented some­thing of a shock: streets ankle-deep in flowing mud when it rained, dogs and cows vying for space with people on narrow twisting lanes, people’s lives lived largely in public view. But Kirtipur, a town still flanked by rice fields and backed by hills, became a haven from the still greater noise, confusion, and strangeness of the fast-growing city of Kathmandu.

The Kathmandu orienta­tion was very useful. University faculty lecturers offered com­prehensive overviews of a num­ber of important issues in Nepal, and provided opportunities for participant comparative think­ing. Kathmandu, like Portland, must cope with its rapidly accel­erating growth and demand for water and other resources. Con­servation as constituted in Nepal must address many of the same concerns we consider in the United States, perhaps particu­larly in Oregon. Also, teachers were empowered for later adventures as they came to feel competent in coping with life in Kirtipur.

Photo of four people standing in the valley.
Mt. Everest and TWIN teachers . Photo by Barbara Brower


From Kirtipur, participants flew to Lukla, gateway to Sagar­matha National Park (see Figure 1), for three weeks of trekking and the core of the TWIN field experience. The national park, known locally as Khumbu, is a week’s walk from the nearest road. The park’s 1,100 square kilometers encompass not only the world’s highest mountain, but a number of other spectacu­larly high peaks, massive glaci­ers, and deep valleys, forested in their lower reaches.

Home of the famous Sher­pa people, Khumbu simultane­ously supports its resident popu­lation of potato farmers, yak herders, and trader-tourist guides, and lures almost 20,000 international visitors annually. Park officials grapple with man­agement problems ranging from expedition garbage to local demand for timber to build hotels, and must regulate the use of what had been the Sherpa’s homeland in the interests of an international conservation agen­da. There are interesting paral­lels with conservation issues in the teachers’ home turf.

The group was met at Lukla by the trekking company and crew, a group of young men and women from a variety of ethnic groups (Sherpa; Rai; Magar; Gurung; Chetri) and home regions, whose job was to move and sustain camp, and who provided something else as well: friendly and familiar faces, life histories, and hospitality when group members passed through home villages.

The shift from central city to rural/wild mountain land­scape took TWIN participants from 4,200 feet to 9,000 feet and from an experience domi­nated by culture shock to a physically grueling mountain challenge—as well as a new set of cultural factors. Here, plan­ning either paid off, failed to account for reality, or was superseded by serendipitous opportunities.

The trek was planned as a gradual ascent up the valleys of Sagarmatha National Park that would acquaint participants with the complex interactions of human use and natural process in shaping a high-mountain landscape. Field exercises were to fine-tune the teachers’ obser­vational skills while equipping them with techniques to bring home to their students. The trek was to alternate travel with work/rest days, and to take the group through changing vegeta­tion zones, a number of Sherpa settlements, and to meetings with park officials and local vil­lagers en route to a high point of about 16,000 feet.

At each stop, site surveys were planned to provide prac­tice in field observation and the use of instruments. These sur­veys were designed to allow the teachers to collect information that would further their own understanding of processes in natural and cultural land­scapes, provide subject matter and techniques suitable for later classroom use, and provide data for research in, by, and about the park.

The surveys, grounded in a vegetation sampling strategy designed to provide instantly recognizable results to amateur biogeographers trying to make sense of vegetation patterns, called for a vegetation transect (to provide information on struc­ture, cover and composition, and vegetation dynamics), and asso­ciated measurements of site vari­ables (slope, aspect, tempera­ture, humidity, wind speed, and soil temperature and pH).

Additional field exercises planned included simple field mapping and stream flow calcu­lations. Cultural survey strate­gies, based on participant obser­vation, were to be unobtrusive and sensitive to issues of privacy and cultural difference.

After a few discouraging days of attempting to carry out the field work agenda planned for TWIN, site surveys were dropped in favor of a less struc­tured, observation-and-discus­sion-based analysis of cultural and natural landscape patterns and processes. Once in the field, given the physical challenges of long days hiking in a high mountain environment and with a whole new world to be explored and understood, field surveys on rain-pelted slopes of overwhelmingly diverse flora came to seem less important.

There was too much else to do, too many other experiences to come to grips with, too much else to be wondered at and enjoyed. Participants learned about biogeography, microcli­mate, and hydrology, but through observation and discus­sion rather than planned field exercises. For much of the trek, the group benefited tremendous­ly from the insights and facilita­tion of a returning resident, Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, also an official of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife and Ph.D. student in Forestry at the University of Washington.

After three days of accli­matization and introduction to the Khumbu and the Sherpa world at Nauje (Namche Bazar), the group traveled up the Bhote Kosi Valley, stopping for a tour of a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery at Thamo, and stayed three days in the Thangmite area. There they visited the recently restored Thami Monastery and met its Abbot, investigated the cracked and leaking holding pond of a micro hydroelectric facility that now electrifies most Sherpa vil­lages, and stayed overnight with Sherpa families. The group’s visit coincided with the Sherpa festival Pangni, and group mem­bers capitalized on the opportu­nity to learn Sherpa line dances, record songs, and film special events—particularly make-believe weddings, complete with elaborate costumes—associated with this unusually festive time of year.

From Thangmite, the par­ticipants retraced their steps toward Nauje, and then turned to camp at the village of Khunde before continuing up the Imja Khola Valley. At Khunde, TWIN participants were given a tour of the Himalayan Trust’s Khunde Hospital and visited another Trust-initiated project in the area, Khumjung School. In scale and facilities, Khumjung School is quite unlike the other schools and adult literacy pro­grams visited by the teachers. Participants also visited schools in Nauje, Thamo, Thami, Fortse, Pangbuje, and Lukla while trekking. TWIN participants shared resources brought from Oregon, and observed the educa­tional setting and were able to compare education practiced in rural Nepal with Kathmandu and their classrooms.

From Khunde, TWIN members moved up the valley of the Ngodzumpa glacier in a carefully staged ascent to a high camp in a yak-herder settlement at 15,400 feet. Some of the group took the opportunity to climb still higher, to 17,000 feet on Gokyo Ri, and others ven­tured out onto the glacier. The group returned down valley to continue up the main valley of the Imja Khola to the village of Fortse, then on to camp above Pangbuje before returning to Namche via a visit to Thangbuje monastery. The group then descended again to Lukla, and experienced the minor monsoon miracle of an on-schedule flight to Kathmandu.

After these physical and emotional challenges, and faced with the task of assimilating so much new experience, partici­pants welcomed the next phase of the TWIN Project: a week in Kathmandu. Teachers acquired additional classroom materi­als and explored the Kath­mandu Valley further as they began pulling their experi­ences together into teachable units.


Upon their return to the Unit­ed States in late August 1997, teachers began development and dissemination of model curriculum units. During the twelve months following the overseas experience, each teacher prepared a model unit (for in-class or field activi­ties).


1. National and international dissemination: The OGA is disseminating the model units to teachers (and others interested in curricular mate­rials) nationally and interna­tionally via the OGA home-page and through notices in the National Geographic Society’s national network of geography alliances.

The OGA will support TWIN teachers (with funding and administrative assis­tance) in presenting model lessons at national in ser­vices, presenting papers based on the Nepal seminar at national and international meetings, and developing Family Geography Night and other community-based activities tied to Nepal area studies. The OGA exchange program (with teachers throughout the Pacific North­west and Hawaii) also serves to enhance dissemination within the Pacific Rim region.

2. National Geographic Society Alliance network: OGA, through its liaison at the Edu­cation Foundation of the National Geographic Society, will advise the alliance repre­sentatives in all fifty states, and Canada and Puerto Rico, of the model units developed by the teacher participants and make copies of materials available to the other alliances.

3. Statewide dissemination: The major statewide dissemina­tion is through the OGA newsletter (sent to schools throughout Oregon, and to several hundred non-Oregon addresses) and through in-service presentations con­ducted by TWIN partici­pants, each of whom is required to give in-services in Oregon or nationally. During the summer of 1998, TWIN participants had a reunion in Portland, sharing their teach­ing work with each other and with other OGA teachers.


a. Impact on geography pro­grams in education: Oregon teachers are currently engaged in extensive statewide education reform that incorporates national standards and state content goals. One key reform goal is to strengthen Oregon’s capac­ity to function in an increas­ingly internationalized and interconnected world. TWIN participants are better pre­pared to advance this goal.

b. Teachers gained an under­standing of comparative mountain geography, which enabled them to incorporate what they learned not only in geography courses, but in earth science, biology, and natural resources courses as well.

c. The Project has long-range potential as teachers, and those they reach, develop continuing “pen-pal” or e­mail connections with Nepali citizens, and with Oregon’s Nepali community.

TWIN has also enabled teachers to organize materials around issues affecting Nepal to be studied by students and com­pared with similar materials organized around Oregon issues.

For example, in August, 1997, The Oregonian reported on the proposed $9.1 billion pro­ject to generate power from Nepal’s Karnali River project, which would be one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world.2 The project was to be developed by Enron Corpora­tion, the same company which owns Portland General Electric, a major supplier of energy from the massive system of hydro­electric dams on the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River.

The generation of hydroelec­tric power in the Pacific North­west is one of the most critical resource development issues in Oregon, pitting salmon, farmers, loggers, electricity consumers, and governments against each other. The Nepal and Oregon hydroelectric projects, especially in light of their common owner­ship, provide a unique opportu­nity for comparative studies.

The teachers can also modify existing teaching materials, such as “Learning Activity: High Mountain Environments in Nepal and China,”3 and “Geog­raphy in the News: Disaster on Everest”4 to compare the Himalayas with the Cascades or other mountains of Oregon. Through its professional devel­opment programs, the OGA will continue to assist the teachers in their curriculum development and to assess the success of the Project.


The success of TWIN’s first goal, to provide an illuminating foreign-area field experience, appears to have been unqualified as each teacher came away with a deeper appreciation of the geography of Nepal. While the level of participation in the second Project goal—field stud­ies—varied, the model curricu­lum units being prepared indi­cate that teachers learned and applied geographic concepts in their Nepal field work. In addi­tion, the teachers’ draft model units demonstrate a strong understanding of the national geography standards and Ore­gon geography standards.

The third Project goal, dis­semination of model units and related materials, is underway. Within a week of their return, the participants established a website, complete with photos from the Project, and partici­pant/staff teams gave presenta­tions at the annual meetings of the Association of American Geographers and the Oregon Council for Social Studies. While such presentations are important, TWIN participants’ students will benefit now and in the coming years.

As one teacher noted, it was an incredible experience to actually see Mt. Everest after having run her fingers over a relief map of Nepal for so many years; another teacher gleefully wrote from Nauje that “We’ve been walking through streams, getting dirty, and having a rigor­ous time becoming one with geography.”

The Teachers’ Workshop in Nepal provided an opportuni­ty for teachers to experience the geography of Nepal, putting them in a unique position to bring to their students what Salter and Salter refer to as the “wonder of geography”: “There is a wonder to geography. It touches all of us. It touches so many strands of the world around us. And it can touch all of our students if we stay cre­ative and provocative in our willingness to bring them to its understanding.”5


Thanks are due to the Department of Education’s Group Projects Abroad Program, Cornell University’s Nepal Project, His Majesty’s Government’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Malla Trek, The United States Educational Foundation in Nepal, Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, Jemima Diki Sherpa, Ken Spice, and Portland State Geography Department’s indis­pensable Carolyn Perry. Ultimately, it is the teacher participants who brought most, and gave most to this venture, and whose good humor, flexibility, and near-unquenchable enthusiasm for learning about the geography of Nepal ensured that the Teachers Workshop in Nepal was a success beyond all expectations.


1. John L. Daly, “Focus on Geography – Team Themes and Field Experi­” Journal of Geography 89(4), 153–155.

2. Binaya Guracharya, “Enron gets OK for Nepal power plant.” The Oregonian, August 6, 1997.

3. Ruth Shirey, “Learning Activity: High Mountain Environments in Nepal and China.” National Coun­cil for Geographic Education – Perspective 25(4).

4. Neal Lineback, “Geography in the News: Disaster on Everest.” National Council for Geographic Education – Perspective 25(4).

5. Kit Salter and Cathy Salter, “The Wonder of Geography.” Journal of Geography 96(4), 182.


Lineback, Neal. “Geography in the News: Disaster on Everest.” National Council for Geographic Education Perspective 25 (4).

Salter, Kit, and Cathy Salter. “The Wonder of Geography.” Journal of Geography 96(4).

Shirey, Ruth. “Learning Activity: High Mountain Environments in Nepal and China.” National Council for Geographic Education – Perspective 25 (4).



NEPAL STUDIES ASSOCIATION John Metz, President Department of History and Geography Northern Kentucky University Nunn Drive Highland Heights, KY 41099 606-572-5462

HIMALAYAN RESEARCH BULLETIN Geography Department Portland State University Portland, OR 97307-0751 1-800-547-8887; ext. 5-8312


Bista, Dor Bahadur. The People of Nepal. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1967.

Tenzing of Everest (Tenzing Norgay Sherpa) with J. R. Ullman. Tiger of the Snows. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955.


Adams, Vincanne. Tigers of the Snow and other Virtual Sherpas. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Brower, Barbara. The Sherpa of Khumbu: People, Livestock, and Landscape. Delhi: Oxford University Press 1991, (1992, 1994 Oxford India Paperbacks).

Fisher, James F. Sherpas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Hutt, Michael, ed. Nepal in the Nineties. Delhi: Oxford, 1995.

Ortner, Sherry B. High Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Regmi, Mahesh C. Thatched Huts and Stucco Palaces. New Delhi: Vikas, 1978.

Stevens, Stanley F. Claiming the High Ground. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

von Furer Haimendorf, Christof. The Sherpas of Nepal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.  Other works, too: Transhimalayan Traders (1975) and The Sherpas Transformed (1984).


Heinrichs, Ann. Nepal: Enchantment of the World. New York: Children’s Press, 1996.


Bernstein, Jeremy. The Wildest Dreams of Kew. New York: Putnam, 1969.

Coburn, Broughton. Amaa in America. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

Downs, Hugh. Rhythms of a Himalayan Village. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980.

Hillary, Edmund and Louise. Schoolhouse in the Clouds, A Yak for Christmas, etc.

Iyer, Pico. Video Night in Kathmandu, 1986.

Scott, Barbara J. The Violet Shyness of their Eyes. Corvallis: Calyx Books.


SINHAS: nhas/index.html





HIMALAYAN ONLINE NEWS SERVICE: site/internet_resources.html NEPAL ADDRESSES: np/add.html

SHERPA FRIENDSHIP ASSOC.:!/sfa/SF A_home.html NEPAL HOME PAGE: http://www/





gopher:// asia


http://www.columbia. edu/cu/ libraries/indiv/area/sarai