International Education

GNED Field School to Honduras - Learning Outside the Classroom

14 Mount Royal University students embarked on a very unique learning experience this winter; travelling to Honduras as part of General Education (GNED) 3010 – “Science in a Global Context “and GNED 3030 – “Global Communities and Societies”.

After a competitive selection process including an essay and formal application to the Office of International Education, students were selected to take two, six credit, Tier 3 General Education courses from two different General Education clusters, fulfilling their Tier 3 requirements.

“Science in a Global Context “examines the issues of biodiversity, environmental sustainability and conservation, while “Global Communities and Societies” explores the themes of global connections, cultural interactions and social problems/social change.

The two courses work in collaboration to examine issues relevant to Honduras, such as bananas, coffee, and farming from both a scientific and social science perspective. The courses are open to Mount Royal students from any discipline, which further adds to the diversity of the program.

MRU students participate in 5-week international field school to Honduras.

This program, led by Roberta Lexier and Melanie Rathburn, which ran for the first time this year, is structured around academic rigour and hands-on experience; with four weeks of course work at Mount Royal, followed by five weeks practical experience in Honduras, ending with four weeks of course work back at Mount Royal.

“This academic structure allows for a deeper understanding and analysis of learning, as well as a synthesis of learning – connecting theory with what students see on the ground,” explained Lexier.

The main purpose of the program is to expose students to new cultures and environments, provide hands-on experience in the two courses, and offer them the opportunity to engage further with community service learning.

Students engaged in a number of community service learning activities during their five week stay in Honduras. They worked with OYE (Organization for Youth Empowerment) – a mentorship and scholarship program for at risk youth- where they created a wall mural and produced a magazine; they spent time in the jungle of La Moskitia, where they used local knowledge to build bridges and they participated in an international Coral Watch program that monitors coral reef health, helping to collect data to be used by researchers all over the world.

“The program really demonstrates the integrated nature of General Education. Even though the two courses have very different themes, there is a lot of overlap,” explained Rathburn.

Students experienced, first-hand, an excellent example of the integration between the two courses when visiting a banana plantation. The banana plantation allowed students the opportunity to study both scientific aspects of the business – sustainability, pesticides and growing conditions – along with socio-economic aspects – working conditions, the global market and the influence of consumer demand.

Students learned about bananas from both a science and social science perspective.

Another very positive learning experience was when the group visited Capucas, a coffee plantation cooperative made up of local farmers. There, they looked at working conditions, the role of the cooperative from a larger global network, and environmental sustainability.

This sustainable business uses organic fertilizers made from the pulp of coffee cherries, recycles water, and uses greenhouses to dry the beans. This equates into less waste and saving more energy, which in turn lowers costs, minimizes environmental footprint, and increases quality of the coffee. As a result, these efforts also improve the lives of people in the community.

The hands-on experience gained through these community service learning opportunities allows for novel ways to learn and to become immersed in the subject matter.

“Students get to see how the world is so interconnected just like the two subjects they are taking. To understand the issues, students need to understand the connections,” explained Lexier.

Courtney Walcott, an English and History major, is one of the students enrolled in this program. He chose this particular GNED program as he saw it as a great opportunity – a chance to have an International experience incorporated into his studies, which he felt he needed to take advantage of sometime during his time at Mount Royal.

“The subject matter is in line with my studies, and it is the perfect opportunity to get some hands-on, real life experience,” Courtney explained.

During the international experience in Honduras, Courtney realised how biased classroom learning can sometimes be without real life experience to accompany it. In his classroom studies, he had learned about many negative aspects of banana plantations depicted in the books they were reading, but saw the complete opposite when visiting one on the ground.

“I was so impressed with how sustainable the coffee cooperative was, and how much initiative the local workers were taking to protect the environment and reduce waste,” Courtney added.

In both courses, students worked with local communities on service learning projects, such as building bridges.

Students had the opportunity for many personal growth moments as they connected with a different world in Honduras. Seeing all the poverty made a huge impact on the students; however, more importantly, it gave them the opportunity to look at poverty from a different perspective and to try and redefine it. Students learned that despite poverty, the communities were happy and that all their basic needs were being met locally, from their immediate surroundings.

Students also came back with different perspectives as consumers of the products they saw being produced in Honduras. They feel that they are now much more critical consumers, and think twice before deciding on which companies to support or not.

In the remainder of the course work back at Mount Royal, students are now able to reflect on all that they learned at each activity in Honduras and what they still need to learn, so that they can move onto trying to evaluate some of the solutions to the problems facing Honduras.

The students were pleased and honoured to learn upon their return that they had each received the Campus Alberta Grant for International Learning (CAGFIL) funded by Alberta's Ministry of Advanced Education and Technology (AIAE). This scholarship supports innovative faculty-led Field School initiatives that create opportunities for Albertans in all areas of study.

Lexier and Rathburn are already making plans for this program offering next year, and they hope to create a fund-raising event for September 2014, to help raise money for student scholarships, making the opportunity more accessible to all Mount Royal students, as well as to give back to their community partners in Honduras.

Marisa Norona, April 6, 2014