Updated call: Master’s scholarship: Communicating climate change through tree planting projects

Updated: 15 February 2021

This project is for two Master’s students – one design orientated, one science or science communication orientated – to work together on a project with a focus on communicating about tree planting schemes as a climate mitigation tool. 

We originally shared this project in December 2020 and we have filled the Master of Design (MDes) position, but we still have a vacancy for a Master of Science in Society candidate to work alongside our design candidate.

We welcome expressions of interest and applications from candidates who:

  • Are interested in pursuing a one year Master of Science in Society (part 2, thesis) project
  • Meet the eligibility criteria (an Honours degree or postgraduate diploma in an appropriate field, with an average grade of B+ or higher in your subject area)
  • Would be available to start straight away (or soon)
  • Have a particular interest in climate change communication
  • Are enthusiastic about working with other disciplines in a collaborative way

Though our preferred arrangement would be a candidate who meets the criteria above, we are also open to expressions of interest from people with relevant experience who may be interested in alternative arrangements (for instance, early career researchers who may wish to undertake this as a paid research contract with a view to co-publishing the research). We are open to discussing alternative ways to deliver the research needed for this project to succeed. 

Scholarship summary

Study Area(s): science / science communication / design

Scholarship Level: Masters Research (Master of Science in Society / Master of Design)

Closing Date(s): 1 March 2021

Tenure: One year

Number offered: One (at the Centre for Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington).
This student will work with another student at the Wellington School of Design at Massey University)

Value: $17,000 stipend, plus fees

Project Description

This unique project combines two Master’s scholarships in order to develop an interdisciplinary response, covering science, science communication, design and community engagement. It is supported by Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence. 

The Master’s projects will research, develop and design a tree planting site (as a proof of concept pilot project) that engages visitors about climate mitigation as well as ecology. In line with a design approach the specific outputs are not predetermined, and could include elements such as a custom-designed tree planting area; signage and interpretation integrated across a tree planting location (that contains different species and plantings of different ages and stages); and/or other lateral design responses that help communicate the issues/solutions, both on-site and/or more widely.

This inherently interdisciplinary project has relevance to biodiversity, climate economics, mātauranga Māori, social justice, design and science communication. Across the two candidates (we anticipate there will be extensive peer-to-peer co-learning and knowledge transfer) the project will require an understanding of science (tree ecology, ecosystems, carbon cycle), design (design of spaces, visual communication, community use and engagement), and science (climate) communication (appropriate messaging, audience engagement, politics of communication). 

Our design candidate is in place, and we are looking now to bolster the science/science communication capacity of the research team. 

This is an exploratory pilot project: while it carries expectations around an on-the-ground experience in-situ, the intention is that the outcomes go beyond that into something that is, or may become, a reusable ‘tool’.


There are many tree planting sites across Aotearoa, often supported by local or regional councils and primarily funded for reasons such as flood protection purposes, with recognition of the beneficial local ecological advantages the planting provides, such as cleaner water and increased biodiversity. At the same time, ‘the public’ are informed that tree planting is a good way to combat climate change, for instance by clicking a climate mitigation button after purchasing air tickets, or in policy discussions about carbon trading. There is, however, little information that connects practical ‘trees in the ground’ to theoretical carbon mitigation – how many trees really need to be planted to absorb the equivalent carbon that is emitted on a flight to Europe? Does it matter what kind of tree is planted? What happens if that tree dies, through natural causes or logging? Do the trees need to stay on dry land? Are native trees better than eucalypts?

These Master’s opportunities have been funded to explore this gap by developing an on-the-ground science communication design output, focused on how trees absorb carbon, and over what time periods (i.e. ten trees may absorb enough carbon for a flight between Auckland and Wellington in 30 years but if we wait long enough, they could cover a flight to London in, say, 150 years). The intention is that this pilot project will provide ‘templates’ or ‘tools’ that could be applied more widely across the country.

The pilot project will be situated in Ōtaki and at least one of the successful applicants will ideally have a connection to the area, through whānau or study, and/or a demonstrated interest and understanding of Mātauranga Māori. The project is a collaboration with Friends of the Ōtaki River, which is providing the pilot site as well as tangible in-kind support. Supervision will come from Dr Rhian Salmon at the Centre for Science in Society (Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington), Jo Bailey at the Wellington School of Design (Massey University) and Associate Professor Cate Macinnis-Ng at the University of Auckland, all of whom are investigators with Te Pūnaha Matatini.

Though one student will be enrolled at Victoria University of Wellington and one at Massey University School of Design (so will receive independent degrees from those establishments), we hope to use this collaboration to explore cross-institution interdisciplinary collaboration as well. It is vital that the candidates are open to collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches to study, so must be adaptable and responsive to forging a shared body of expertise with their co-candidate (for instance, sharing their expertise and collectively identifying knowledge gaps they may need to fill together) as well as working autonomously. 

Application process

We welcome expression of interest emails for informal discussion at any time before the deadline. 

Applicants who are interested in applying should send an email titled ‘Using Tree Planting Projects to Communicate about Climate Change Scholarship’ to: Dr Rhian Salmon and Jo Bailey by 1 March 2020.  

Applicants should also include the following documentation in their email:

  • A CV
  • A personal statement outlining why they want to apply for this scholarship, as well as availability and preferred start date
  • One written academic or professional reference, or the contact details of a referee who can be contacted for a verbal reference. 

Selection process

A shortlist of eligible applicants will be drawn up by an internal panel consisting of nominees from Te Pūnaha Matatini on the basis of the applicants’ study record, CV, academic or professional reference and personal statement. An interview or interviews may be required. The successful recipient will be chosen by the same internal panel.

Regulations and conditions

Applicants should satisfy the requirements for admission as a Master’s candidate at Victoria University of Wellington. They will also need to sign a Research Scholarship contract. 


For more information please contact Dr Rhian Salmon and Jo Bailey:



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