As the fall 2016 semester drew to a close, six Virginia Tech graduate students headed south for a week.
The group visited two universities in Quito, Ecuador; a proposed research center in that country’s cloud forest region; and spent time exploring a university extension program in the Galapagos Islands. One student also visited a biodiversity research center in the country’s Amazon region.
Their itinerary included intense discussions with faculty at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and Escuela Politécnica Nacional, time in classrooms with teachers and undergraduate students, and opportunities to tour research labs and discuss key issues.
The group included Amy Hermundstad, of Grand Junction, Colorado, a Ph.D. student in Engineering Education and a master’s degree student in mechanical engineering; Gary Nave, a Virginia native and Ph.D. in engineering mechanics; Emily Garner, of Swanton, Maryland, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering with an emphasis on environmental and water resources engineering; Anne Hilborn, of Seattle, Washington, a doctoral student in fish and wildlife conservation; Mohammed Seyam, of Egypt, a Ph.D. student in computer science; and Daniel Cordova Cardenas, of Ecuador, a doctoral student in science and technology in society.
21st-century faculty training
The GPP Ecuador trip was part of ongoing joint venture between the Virginia Tech Graduate School and USFQ. The venture began taking shape in March 2015, when DePauw visited the Universidad and gave a presentation to the university’s faculty on the Graduate School’s Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) program.
DePauw developed and launched the university-wide TGE program more than a decade ago with the aim of changing the way graduate students prepare to become future professors or professionals outside academe, emphasizing knowledge, leadership, scholarly inquiry, and social responsibility.
The program complements academic disciplines, encourages interdisciplinary research and collaboration across fields, and provides professional development opportunities. The Graduate School offers a range of classes under the umbrella of the initiative, including Preparing the Future Professoriate, Contemporary Pedagogy, Communicating Science, and Citizen Scholar.
USFQ administrators and faculty asked DePauw to return in November 2015 to share more about it, and the university launched the 21st Century Faculty Initiative, based on the TGE program. DePauw said USFQ President Carlos Montúfar’s goal was to develop the program and eventually to make it available to other institutions in the country and the region. In summer 2016, USFQ faculty members came to Virginia Tech for a week-long seminar.
This past November DePauw returned to USFQ with the GPP students. All had taken the future professoriate courses and participated in the Global Perspectives higher-education research program in Switzerland, Italy, and France. They spent a week meeting with faculty and students at two institutions and USFQ’s extension program in the Galapagos Islands, where the university also has an international program.
Virginia Tech students said USFQ faculty members with whom they spoke were enthusiastic about the partnership.
“Their focus is on improving higher education and what we've done here at Virginia Tech and ways to spread that to other areas and be involved with other universities,” said Hermundstad.
“We got to meet with all these faculty members that are trying to kind of emulate some of our curriculum from the preparing the future professoriate program,” said Nave.
Connecting with local community
The GPP scholars were equally interested in learning what USFQ, a private liberal arts college with a primary focus on undergraduate education, was doing to encourage innovation and cross-disciplinary education.
“My impression of USFQ is that it is a very vibrant, dynamic, informal place. It was full of art everywhere,” Hilborn said. “There seemed to be an incredible amount of freedom to explore. Because it is small and growing, there are fewer layers to get through if you want to do something.”
Nave noted that USFQ requires every undergraduate student to take a service learning course and then give presentations on their work. That work must link to their majors, he added.
Hermunstad said she appreciated the challenge of “trying to find those links between what are you doing and how you are helping the community and how that relates to the rest of what you’re studying and focusing on.”
“That definitely stood out for me,” said Garner, who noted that USFQ is a liberal arts college with an engineering program. “Of course they are taking very diverse classes, probably more diverse than what they would take here. The students we talked to spoke as if they had a really good grasp of what their role might be in society and some good perspective.”
Galapagos Island extension campus
Seyam said the experience with the students and classes in the Galapagos Islands opened up new ways to think about his own teaching.
“I’m always interested in how to get students to work with industry in computer science, but in the Galapagos, the relationship was not between students and industry, it’s the students and their environment, the surroundings, what they get from that and what they put back into it," he said.
Now, Seyam said, he wants to explore ways of having students connect their work to their communities.
The GPP scholars all expressed admiration for the 150 Galapagos students working toward degrees in the USFQ extension program.
“I met students who were working full time, parenting, and taking classes,” Hilborn said.
“Every one of them knew what she was going to do,” said Seyam.
“Not only that, but they were already doing something to get there,” Nave added.
Garner said her talk with an environmental engineer who researches water quality throughout Ecuador and the Galapagos was enlightening.
“Her research was really shaped by finding better ways to address problems with limited resources, She was very aware of how her research could benefit the community and the people.”
Many of the local students’ classes are online, and Internet connection to the islands is not reliable, creating challenges for those pursuing degrees, the GPP scholars noted. Hilborn also paid attention to the differences between the program for local students and the offerings for international students.
“There was a lot of food for thought regarding the quality and access to education the Galapagans got. The difference in the teaching quality between the two campuses was quite marked,” she said.
Seyam said conversations with USFQ faculty and students in Quito and the Galapagos helped him think of ways Virginia Tech might learn from the Ecuador institutions.
He noted that USFQ and other institutions struggled to overcome issues, such as spotty Internet connections or a shortage of teachers in various fields.
“They try to come up with innovative solutions. They are trying to solve real-world problems, and the world for them is their surroundings,” he said. "I’m not sure if they are seeing these obstacles as opportunities, but that’s how I saw it.”
DePauw believes the USFQ partnership aligns with Virginia Tech’s goal of being a “global land-grant university.”
GPP scholars agreed.
“I really think the whole purpose of the trip was to build partnerships between Virginia Tech and USFQ and Escuala Politécnica de Nacional in Quito,” said Nave.
“On all the levels ─ grad students, researchers, faculty, and administration ─ we spoke about different levels of collaboration."
He added that he hopes Virginia Tech considers having the USFQ faculty share ideas and strategies with Virginia Tech students and faculty across the Blacksburg campus, especially those planning to teach in higher education.
“They are coming to Virginia Tech to learn from our experience ─ the preparing the future professoriate program and how we prepare our faculty,” he said. “But my idea is, these people coming to us have things that they can share, such as how they deal with problems we may not face or that we didn’t think of before.”
GPP scholars and DePauw chronicled their visit via Twitter, and their posts were compiled in a Storify narrative, which can be found here.
USFQ posted a gallery of photos from the Global Perspectives Scholars' visit on its Flickr site. They can be found them here.