What are your Objectives?
There are many reasons for participating in an international experience. If you are planning such an adventure, have your objectives in mind; otherwise the reasons for your trip may become obscured. You also run the danger that you will not reach your objectives by the time the trip is completed.
It is relatively easy to sign up for a travel tour to any country. However, our project is unique in its educational foci on the culture, education, and ecology of another country (see Figure 5). We believe that international experiences are essential for professional development of educators. At the present time, there are many private and public colleges and universities that insist their students should have at least one international experience before graduation. How are we as educators preparing our students for such experiences? Do we ourselves know anything about other countries? For many years, we have run a residential week-long workshop for educators in the mountains, where they study a unique ecosystem. Educators from different countries come together with teachers from different states. Their evaluations indicate that the exchange of ideas from those of different backgrounds was most important; these educators are adamant that this experience changed their outlook and approaches.
Figure 5. Participants explore a unique ecosystem on the Amazon
In order to foster the success of each individual participant attending the workshop, it is important to meet challenges, allow time for self-exploration, and to incorporate new and different knowledge by developing their own classroom activities (Howe & Stubbs, 1998). We were convinced that factors important for non-residential workshops could be the same for residential workshops. Many of the teacher participants reported the mountain experience was transformative. What were the reasons for this? Was living, working, and traveling together significant for the educators? Was getting away from their home environment important, freeing them from regular responsibilities? We wanted to test several different approaches with this international experience:
• Could we travel to a different location and have an international experience for educators?
• Could we team with teachers from that country? Would that make the experience more valuable for the participants?
• Would this experience provide challenges for the participants? Would they return from the experience so excited that they would incorporate what they learned into what they taught their students?
• Could we use the SCI-LINK method (Anderson, 1993)? Educators would develop their own activities to teach upon their return to the classroom, providing a mechanism for increasing self-knowledge.
• Would there be an ongoing relationship between participants of the different countries?
• Would this experience benefit the students of the participants?
• Could there be a connection between students of the educators?
We are just beginning to answer these questions as we enter the project’s fifth year. We would be most interested in the results that any others who have engaged in these experiences may wish to share.
How Did these International Experiences Develop?
When you design an international experience, the circumstances of each individual will be different. These experiences involve many individuals and organizations. It takes time for connections to be established prior to the actual experiences. Chance meetings and serendipity all play a part.
To illustrate the circuitous route this international experience took, consider this: A graduate student from another country insisted our faculty attend a conference. Five of us went. The following year, as a result of that conference, Stubbs became the first Visiting Scholar at a public, non-profit organization of that country. Local individuals took Stubbs to many different places during her stay in this very large urban area. This experience was an important firsthand orientation to the culture of the area and important in future planning of professional development programs between the two countries.
During the subsequent three years, projects were undertaken and facilitated by long-standing relationships between the entities in the foreign country and the university in the U.S. With the strong support and the extensive connections of the Instituto Sangari (Cooperating Institution) Advisory Board members, and the support of our Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education and administration at NCSU (Home Institution), we have been able to pilot these efforts on a small but successful scale.
Foreign faculty and students visited our workshops in the U.S. The following year, American educators traveled to the foreign country, examining culture, pedagogy, and a specific ecosystem. Teachers, science education administrators, science librarians, and two teaching scientists learned from experts and scientists who presented up-to-date research findings related to the ecological environments and educational practices of the foreign country.
In 2005, teachers and school administrators from the two countries teamed together and the results were extraordinary. Teaming a teacher from one country with a teacher from another country is an important difference from any of our other professional development workshops. Teachers found ways to communicate and share the experience with one another even when translators were not present. These teaming experiences, in one of the largest cities in the world between both countries’ teachers, added a new dimension to our vision of what could happen in the future.
Why is it Important to Cooperate and Coordinate with an Organization within the Other Country?
We have found that local connections are essential to bring richness and breadth of knowledge to the project. This project is a two-way project, demanding cooperation, coordination, and flexibility on the part of both the Home Institution and the Cooperating Institution. In truth, little of our project would have been successful without the positive support of Ben Sangari of the Instituto Sangari.
Some important benefits of working with an organization with local connections, and the subsequent impact on teacher experiences are as follows:
• The success of the project is dependent upon the infrastructure, cooperation, and support from entities within that country. Key personnel, staff, and Board Members of the Cooperating Institution provide a unique source of expertise in many different capacities.
• Effective translators are critical to the trip’s success. Local translators are provided by the Cooperating Institution. The translator is an essential part of the experience and can either “make or break” the experience. We have learned: how and when to translate so that the audience is not bored and remains “on-task”; when translators are needed; how many translators to have within a traveling group; and, the type of background translators needed to optimally communicate with educators on different topics. We will spend more time in the next trip, delineating our requirements for translators beforehand.
• Orientation of the project staff from both countries is essential to prepare all trip leaders in effective facilitation techniques, safety and security issues, expectations for development of classroom activities by teachers, maintenance of group cohesiveness, and in cultural differences and expectations of staff in sharing knowledge and dealing with any problems that may arise.
How Do you Plan a Professional Development Experience Like This?
The Project Director, in conjunction with Cooperating Institution staff members, decided what was important and how the program could be orchestrated. Staff worked with a local travel agency to learn about possibilities, timing, and local contacts. They also planned the specific ecosystem adventure; communication between parties was essential. The schedule was changed innumerable times. We all learned to be flexible. We arrived at an overall schedule with the assumption that we could make changes as the need arose. We could react immediately to daily evaluations, so if participants were over-tired, we could have a later breakfast or even cancel a particular activity. A readjustment could also be made to the schedule due to weather. Instead of doing an outdoor activity in pouring rain, participants could visit an indoor museum. In addition, time was scheduled to research and develop individual activities and to write in daily logs on computers.
We estimated the percentage of time to be spent on education, the environment, and the culture of the country. We considered the need for a varied schedule including: speaker presentations that were evenly spaced, breaks during the day; activities ranging from listening, to participation, to group work, to individual work, and time to work on computers.
Upon arrival, each participant received a daily schedule. It delineated each 30 minutes of time in the program. Preparations for such intensive and diverse adventures require extensive pre-trip planning, coordination, and oversight of multiple personnel in both countries. As many who have undertaken these types of experiences in the past report, such an experience requires dedication on the part of all those involved (Emmett Wright, personal communication, December, 2005).
Activity Development by Participants
Participants use computers at the hotel in which they are staying to keep their journals, develop activities, and communicate with those at home. Although we hope to have access to computers as we travel, this is not always feasible. It is important to develop an e-mail list for future connections.
Findings from early SCI-LINK workshops indicate that between 96% to 100% of the teachers who developed their own activities in a workshop setting, taught their activity (Howe & Stubbs, 1998). Also, 69% of the participants used the activity two or more times, and 67% of the participants used new scientific knowledge presented in the workshop in their activity development. Additionally, 91% to 94% of the teachers shared ideas with colleagues, and 80% to 88% of the participants shared the resource materials provided in the workshops with their colleagues.
Participants are provided a suggested activity format developed by teachers, used in other SCI-LINK workshops. Activities developed by the participants may be placed on a web-site for others to view and use (Stubbs & Anderson, 1995).
Why is the Evaluation Component Important?
Following Dr. Ann Howe’s (1998; 2003) formative and summative evaluation design based on previous work, daily evaluations were reported. Immediate changes could be made by the project’s leaders; based on participants’ feedback, planned activities were adjusted. Using a final external assessment of the project objectives and activities, the second year’s structure was modified to accommodate many of the participants’ recommendations from the first year: not enough reflection time; too much time in buses and cars; more personal time with foreign participants; participants needed rest time; and, all wanted access to individual computers for journaling, project tasks, and research.
Daily evaluations. We are developing an on-line evaluation form to be returned daily to the home office for tabulation. This will save major time commitments of the staff in 2008. Additionally, the final evaluation will be administered via computer.
Brainstorming sessions. Teachers from each country further shared what they had learned about themselves. One teacher stated, “I’ve learned to know my limits and to live with different cultures.” Another teacher said, “I have learned that I can do anything that I want with patience and determination,” while another teacher learned “to accept and understand the differences of people.” One teacher learned that “people are similar all over the world.” When asked what they had learned about others, responses included statements like, “We learned from differences.” A different teacher said, “That no matter what the dynamics of a group are, we can all learn to help each other and form a bond of trust and friendship.” For many, this was a first time for various experiences: traveling alone, exploring a jungle and learning to survive with minimal support in an unfamiliar environment; and flying in an airplane. All participants stated that it was the first time that they shared such an experience with members of another country, a different culture, and those who spoke a different language.
Follow-Up and dissemination. It is essential to follow-up with participants for further evaluation and suggestions. Is there a lasting influence of the experience? We are just beginning to receive results; enough time has not yet elapsed for us to evaluate changes for the 2007 experience. For example, one 2007 Brazilian participant, Anna, reported that she had spent a few hours on Google Earth and was actually able to locate the satellite image of one of our pousadas. She even made a copy of the picture so that she could use it in her teaching, presentations, or future writing. She found a cattle drive in the Pantanal, similar to one we had to drive through, watching the cowboys, or pantaneiros, lash out with their metal whips. Anna will begin teaching a new elective class spring semester at her middle school, focusing on the environmental problems noted both locally and in Brazil, and include the biodiversity of flora and fauna in the Pantanal. She will incorporate many of her digital photographs and video clips taken on the trip. She will report results after this experience.
Some educators will participate as future teachers-on-staff and share their specific expertise. Having gained confidence from facing new experiences, they will present at local, state, regional, national, and international conferences. They may present using new technologies; they may contribute articles or be involved with further dissemination of important information and curricula. For some examples, please see http://www.ncsu.edu/scilink (NCSU, n.d.) and www.institutosangari.org.br (Instituto Sangari, n.d.). We are eager for each participant to present their findings and their results in a follow-up article.
In just a few short years, the world of our students will change from the world we once knew. It is essential that educators participate in the developing global network, maximizing our own knowledge so we can communicate with our students, the future work force in this emerging global society.