Parks and People is a fifteen credit semester program. It involves a ten-week travel component, and is broken into five courses. The courses are designed to fulfill curriculum requirements from multiple disciplines spanning natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Students are from multiple academic disciplines and technology helps in communicating complex ideas across disciplinary lines.
The program began in 2009 and was created by Robert Crane, director of Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering, and Development in Africa (AESEDA). “We’re in the third year of the program, and each year these classes evolve because the faculty make adjustments to make the program better,” said Neil Brown, program director for Parks and People.
Getting this program off the ground has been a true collaborative effort. Brown noted that the University Office of Global Programs, Student
Affairs, several colleges, and several technology groups like Teaching and Learning with Technology all worked together to make the program a success. In addition, South African partners like the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency and the University of Cape Town have been crucial in creating a dynamic learning environment for Penn State students and faculty.
One of the goals of the program is to make it economically feasible for any student to participate. Brown did this by reviewing how much students would pay if they were staying on campus in a dorm with a meal plan. “So the idea is for it to be cost effective and therefore open to a larger group of students,” he said. “Money is not going to be, and should not be, the determining factor who can take part in an experience like this.”
Brown said the entire program looks at protected park reserves in South Africa, and the people who live around them. The students study how these communities co-exist with the parks, and some of the challenges raised by this relationship.
“People have necessities, such as access to the reserve’s firewood or access to the reserve’s medicinal plants,” Brown said. “But you also have other people involved from outside the community. So you have, for example, tourists who want to come and explore this area and so the students look at some of the implications of various stakeholders on the biodiversity of the protected areas.
Brown gave an overview of the students’ trip. They start in Cape Town, and do a roadtrip around South Africa, with their destination a nature reserve. “We give the students an opportunity to experience different environments, social and physical, on their way to the nature reserve,” he said. “So they don’t just get one perspective about South Africa.”
The nature reserve is owned by the seven communities, and it is one of the last standing coastal forests in South Africa. The students get varying perspectives on all the environmental, social, and political issues by living on the reserve while they are there, and interacting with four South African universities. “The other universities’ students and faculty are actually in the field with us, learning and sharing ideas,” Brown said. “The program is built on the concept of multiple learning pathways. And so they’re learning through all these different interactions, by doing, reading, and by talking to people.”
To record these experiences, students use iPod Touches, provided by the Media Commons, part of Teaching and Learning with Technology. Students use the iPods for anything from recording video and shooting photos including developing required photo and video journals to using them during downtime to read books they downloaded.
Brown said the iPods were an important part of the program. “Because they are so small, the iPods were always with the students,” he said. “The main thing with the iTouch’s is that, through the journals, we can see the experience through students’ eyes. We can see what they’re interested in. What they’re looking at. What they think is important.
What are the things on the landscape that they find interesting? What about the people? What are the interactions with each other that they think are important that they want to capture?”
“Those videos and pictures are often very different than what we see as faculty. But that’s an opportunity for us to have conversation where the students are actually contributing to their own learning and to their own understanding of the park/community system and of each other’s experiences with that system.”
These experiences in the Parks and People Program provide many benefits for students. First, the program is hands-on and involves interactions with people in actual situations, so the learning comes from first-hand experience and from different perspectives.
“Students are learning how to collaborate. How to work with people that don’t look at the world the same way they do from an academic standpoint,” Brown said.
The students also can tie in the program’s learning experience to their chosen field, such as meteorology or engineering. The credits they earn from Parks and People Project and the follow-up course they take the next semester is enough for a minor, Science, Society, and the Environment Africa.
In addition, what students learn from the program can be used once they leave Penn State. For example, several students from past semesters are working on master’s degrees at other universities that are related to what they learned in the program, including one student who is back at the same African reserve working on hers. A few past student have returned the following year as research assistants. “With the ones who have experienced the program, we are definitely seeing benefits,” Brown said. Not just the intangibles like being able to work in different environments, but real, tangible links to the program, which is very reassuring.”
Brown said that technology has been instrumental to the program’s success, and that is not limited to the iPods. The group is experimenting with a satellite internet system that is smaller than a briefcase and will allow Brown and others to use Skype in the field, enabling students to show others, on-site, what they are working on. Students also posted images they took with the iPods on their blogs and on Facebook.
Brown mentioned two main benefits of technology. First, he said that students do not have to wait until they return from Africa to share their experiences with everyone. Students, alumni, family members, friends, and others can see what they are experiencing via posting words, photos, and videos to Facebook and blogs. Second, he said that enabling easy video recording and photo taking allows students to capture moments that are difficult to capture in words.
“The technology is something that the students are very much familiar with. It gets them excited about the program,” Brown said. “It’s another way of keeping them motivated and enthused instead of just saying ‘write an article about your experience.’ And having a piece of technology in hand kind of gets that blood pumping about taking videos and pictures to share. Gets that enthusiasm going.”
For more information about the Parks and People Project at Penn State, please go to: http://aeseda.psu.edu/programs/.