Education Across Borders
Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching Dr. Audrey Mohan participated in the Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad, which provides funds for a group of local area teachers and graduate students to study abroad for 4-6 weeks in Ecuador. While most of the project’s programs focus on language development, some do focus on area studies, within the context of geography, history, and sustainability. Mohan states that Ecuador was chosen for it unique geographic location, claiming that it offers one of the world’s most abundance source of biodiversity. The entire country of Ecuador is divided by the Andes Mountain range with the Amazon on the Eastern side, and a sub-tropical Forest on the Western side, where plantation farming etches itself out in the terrain; while just off the coast lie the Galapagos Islands.
The group first visited the Ecuadorian capital of Quito situated within the Andes Mountains, before heading to the city of Otavalo, which Mohan explains is the cultural capital of northern Ecuador. For a week the group brushed up on their language skill by focusing on Spanish and the local dialect of Qeuchua. Mohan states that the group then visited the Otavalo market to put their new linguistic skills to the test by practicing their Spanish, Kichwa, and English with area vendors. Although some members of the group felt overwhelmed by this immersion process, Mohan states, “For the most part, many of them sharpened their Spanish speaking skill and their understanding of how meanings of words in other languages reflect that culture,” which came as a benefit when the group visited many of the schools located in Otavalo.
The group then traveled into the Amazon rainforest by way of Cessna airplane for a 5-day stay in an eco-lodge listed by National Geographic as one of the Top 100 eco-lodges in the world. Mohan explains that the facility is owned and operated by a local area tribe known as the Achuar. Yet, in spite of the eco-lodge’s prestigious reputation Mohan found it interesting that no one before her had asked for a tour of the facilities. Mohan states that the group was elated when the owners of the complex agreed to provide an impromptu tour. Lead by the head of maintenance, the group learned about the solar panels located above the dining facilities, which Mohan explains, “are wired to a battery room, where the solar power is stored in a series of batteries that in turn power the facility.” Mohan also mentions that the facility cleverly uses black-sided solar bags in which water is collected and stored to produce hot water for showering.
The head of maintenance then led the group to the woodworking shop, where everything for the facility is built on site. Finally, the group visited the water purification system that filters a nearby water source through several purification tanks before being made potable.
Mohan explains, “The Galapagos Islands are one of the best places in the world to study, and learn biology as it is considered one of the most Biodiverse countries in the world.” During their visit, the group had the opportunity to study and observe the environment and much of the wildlife in the area including Amazon pink dolphins, and monkeys; moreover, the group had an opportunity to hike at night to observe the habits of spiders, snakes, and other creepy crawlers. Mohan enthusiastically exclaims, “The wildlife would come right up to you. We literally had pods of sea turtles swimming along side us as we swam.” Mohan claims that while the Galapagos experience benefitted each member positively, its largest impact was on the Geography teachers in the group, as they fell witness to environments, and species they had only learned and taught in classroom settings
Although the group visited many of the schools in Quito, where students were fortunate enough to attend schools equipped with books, computers and supplies, their visit to one of the schools in the Andes demonstrated a stark difference within the educational system. Mohan states, “the school we visited in the Andes is literally made up of four cement walls, a few desks, and offers its students very few books and supplies... things were much worse in the Andes.” Mohan explains that the school’s only teacher, Pilar, leaves her family, comprised of eight children, and the city of Otavalo each Sunday. She then hitchhikes through the mountains to a trailhead where she then rides a 4-wheeler through the jungle to the school, and remains until Friday. Mohan states that Pilar is provided with a one-room structure to sleep in, which is furnished with only a bed, to remain in addition to teaching, she is responsible for preparing lunch for the students each day. Then, on Friday, Pilar rides her 4-wheeler back to the main road, where she again waits for a ride to Otavalo and back home. Mohan explains that the classrooms are divided into one elementary school class, and a type of middle school, or secondary class. Mohan states that the children are taught in Kichwan, Spanish, and English. The students only attend classes until about 2 p.m. as many of them have miles to walk to get home. “Unfortunately,” Mohan explains, “the school cannot afford to provide transportation for them.”
Mohan states that Pilar had her students play a word-association game with the group that would help teach them to correctly pronounce colors in both Kichwan, and in Spanish. After the game the children quizzed the group to test their retention of the words, which Mohan states proved quite invigorating. “I think the exposure to this type of school, that was so bare, and had no supplies, gave the group a awareness to the stark cultural differences that exists between the US and developing countries. In fact, we ended up taking a donation and were able to raise $400 to help purchase supplies for the school” Mohan states. The group concluded their journey by traveling back into the mountains for a weeklong circuit through the Andes Mountains. The group was led by a naturalist guide through different eco-systems such as cloud forests, the subtropic rainforest, and then back into the Andes Mountains. The guide also provided information on the different plants, and animals that exist within these eco-systems.
Mohan states, “We had a well-balanced group, as we has some very experienced travelers, who had been teaching for 30 years, and we had some new teachers who had never been out of the state of Texas. We designed the program so that the pre-service teachers were partnered with the more experienced teachers, and I think that really helped, I wanted them to work with an experienced teacher on curriculum development. The pre-service teachers got to work mainly with Geography teachers to develop lessons and what to include making them successful, so it was a good hands-on experience with a seasoned teacher. I just wanted to expose them to different cultures because some of the teachers might be teaching American History, but most of them will probably teach World History, and so having that global experience will really impact their teaching. In fact, they were responsible for writing out lesson plans for Social Studies that incorporated sustainability as an idea. There were also interdisciplinary lesson plans that included literacy, story telling, and legends, while others worked on blending Science and Social Studies. However, when traveling with a large group, you do get some negative reactions. You have to consider, and account for, group dynamics – people getting tired of each other, or sometimes personalities simply rub the wrong way. Yet, for the most part, the feedback that I got was that it was a life changing experience. The whole purpose of the program was to transform the way teachers think about, and relate to other cultures. Most of them said that it would greatly impact how they would teach about Latin America, and other cultures in general.”