Study Abroad As Active Learning

Alternative title for this post: What I Did Over Spring Break.

Photo credit:
Chad Raymond

One of the benefits of having a joint appointment in an interdisciplinary department is being able to participate in field research initiatives. Two weeks ago, I was in Belize as a co-leader for a tropical biology course examining the effects of agricultural development on biodiversity. This was a great opportunity to observe and teach about intersections between economic development, environmental sustainability, and public policy — while getting one’s hands dirty among the scorpions, bats, snakes, and octopi.

A few random observations:

Undergraduate political science programs with curricula that exclude experiential learning in favor of scholasticism are really doing their students a disservice. Philosophical treatises are no longer the sole repository of knowledge.

American provincialism did manifest itself, but only occasionally and, in my opinion, innocuously. For example, as this blog’s non-U.S. audience probably already knows, my people are generally at a loss in non-English language environments. But despite English being the official language of Belize, it is English with a Belizean accent. And in everyday conversation among locals, Belizean Creole is used — often mixed with Spanish. Occasionally I asked students, “Did you understand that?” and their answer was “no.” I would then point out that American English is not the only form of English, and that they needed to train themselves for that reality. The few among us competent in Spanish definitely had an advantage when we encountered people who did not speak any version of English. For readers in the U.S., does your political science department require proficiency in a second language? It should. Politics are global.

I was impressed by the students’ willingness to try to independently solve problems on the fly while doing their research. They were also relatively unperturbed by the conditions. Maybe this is due to self-selection for this specific study abroad program, but whatever the reason, it made my job much easier.

In-country logistics ran like clockwork, mainly due to the talented local program organizer. It was only when returning to the USA, a Third World country, that we ran into problems — a flight delay, a mad scramble through Miami airport, a missed connecting flight, an interminable rebooking process, not all of us finding seats on the last flight of the day, and a portion of our group forced to overnight in an airport hotel. But everyone did return home in the end. Lesson to students: be prepared in case things don’t go according to plan.