Professors travel to Jamaica to learn about embedded abroad programs

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.—Students who want to study abroad may soon have a very different option. Earlier this summer, Penn State’s Neil Brown, assistant professor of geography at University Park, took a group of professors representing 11 Commonwealth Campuses and eight disciplines on a trip to Jamaica to share his model of intensive embedded international teaching and to gauge their interest in adopting the model for courses at their own campuses.

Under Brown’s model, learning is constant and every waking moment of the trip is designed to maximize one or more of the learning outcomes. The trip in June was designed to show faculty the ins and outs of working an intensely focused, international experience into their own curricula.

“One of our broader goals at Penn State is to offer our students the learning opportunities needed to acquire global perspectives. One of the most effective ways to do that is to integrate international experience into their residence courses. We call these faculty-led embedded courses,” said Michael Adewumi, vice provost for Global Programs.

“The idea is to figure out how we can get students from across the network involved,” Brown said. “We’re talking about institutionalizing programs like this one across the University, including the Commonwealth Campuses.”

Brown has years of experience leading study abroad programs, from his successful Parks and People program to the embedded course LEAP program that he provides for incoming freshmen. Parks and People is an Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering and Development (AESEDA) initiative through the Department of Geography. Each spring semester for the last six years, Parks and People has taken students to South Africa for a 10-week program covering topics about history, culture, sustainability and nature-society interaction in a South African context.

Adewumi said the trip allowed faculty to gain on-the-ground experience that would help them to design and lead their own embedded programs.

The 11 faculty members and Brown traveled through Jamaica to a number of cities and towns, “allowing for the contrasts of the island to serve as discussion points for the multiple disciplines represented.” They completed and evaluated activities similar to what students would be asked to do. Additionally, they held a workshop with faculty from the University of the West Indies on developing a common definition of global competency and citizenship.

Among the topics discussed were cultural themes, global awareness and risk management, said Deborah Mirdamadi, professor of mathematics and cultural diversity at Penn State Mont Alto who traveled to Jamaica with the group.

“The key is: connections, connections, connections,” Mirdamadi said. “I just wish I could’ve taken some of my colleagues on the trip so they could also see first hand.”

While institutionalizing embedded programs is a goal that Penn State is working toward, no two courses are going to be identical.

“Every course that you see is going to be different because faculty personalities are always infused in the material. We used this to create a community of practice,” said Brown.

This community is essentially a feedback loop between the professors running embedded programs, but it has another practical purpose.

“We need to make sure that the students who are spending the money to take these trips are also getting a good, scholarly experience out of it,” said Robert Crane, Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Office of Global Programs. Crane and faculty member Michael Krajsa, instructor of business at Penn State Lehigh Valley, were instrumental in planning and finding support for the trip, though Crane did not participate.

The trip to Jamaica answered many of the concerns that professors had similar to Crane’s regarding student experience.

“Offering a study abroad course has been one of my teaching goals, but I did not want to create a superficial course in which students did not gain a deep understanding of the culture,” said Robert Loeb, professor of biology and forestry at Penn State Dubois. Because of the trip, Loeb is now familiar with the types of in-culture experiences that he wants students in his future course to gain.

“A significant takeaway was the prominence of engagement and immersion as opposed to simple tourism for students to experience and learn about cultures different than their own,” said Roxanne Atterholt, instructor in health and human development and family studies at Penn State Shenango.

Brown said the trip allowed the faculty to experience the embedded model from a student’s perspective, and to use their own professional perspective to improve upon the model and their own programs.

Jyotsna Kalavar, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State New Kensington called the program “training for the trainers.”

“We watched Neil Brown handle a diverse group of people and learned skills with program planning, versatility and adaptability as well as the talent needed to provide students with various lenses to experience their stay in a new culture,” Kalavar said.

Embedded programs are growing in popularity as a way of giving more students the opportunity to study abroad.

“It’s less expensive than a full semester abroad, and less commitment,” Crane said. “We’re also interested in diversifying the population of students who choose to study abroad.”

Crane said that the combination of the fact that most embedded classes are ones that are required for students to take anyway and that some just want to travel makes for a greater variation in students who are able to go.

“Now we’re waiting to see who’s interested,” said Brown. “We took colleagues who wanted to be there as our ambassadors for success, and now we’re gauging interest and building our community.”