Immersion program gives students intensive living-learning experience
Brandon Wick was, by his own admission, a "sheltered" student. An Eau Claire native now attending college in his hometown, he had traveled a bit outside Wisconsin but had never left the United States.
That all changed when the UW-Eau Claire senior psychology major, along with 16 other students representing 12 academic majors from across the university, left Eau Claire in January for a semester in Mendoza, Argentina, an agricultural region in the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains. The students were participants in UW-Eau Claire's TIES (Thematic Interdisciplinary Experiential Semester) pilot program.
Students in the TIES program lived and learned together —from UW-Eau Claire faculty in biology, economics and geology;from a local expert in Latin American studies;from the Argentine people they encountered daily during their stay;and from each other.
"My experiences in the TIES program will affect every aspect of my life, from my career to my character," Wick said.
UW-Eau Claire faculty who participated in TIES Argentina were Brian Mahoney, professor of geology;Todd Wellnitz, associate professor of biology;and Rose-Marie Avin, professor of economics. A fourth TIES instructor, Marcelo Reynoso, a local Argentine expert in sustainable development and ecotourism, taught the history and culture portion of the course in three 10-day periods throughout the semester.
Geology, biology and economics classes were designed in 3½-week concentrated blocks, with overlap between the blocks to help students see how course content interrelated. Opportunities for interaction with and learning directly from the Argentine people were frequent, and the program took students to the many diverse areas of the Mendoza province —including the high alpine region of the Andes and the desert environment below, as well as the area's larger cities and smaller rural communities.
In May, Wick returned to his hometown of Eau Claire not only with new knowledge about another corner of the world and new Spanish-speaking skills (his previous foreign language studies had been in French), but with a better sense of the person he wanted to become.
In Mendoza, "all of the people bent over backwards to help me learn Spanish and help me get accustomed to the routine of Argentina," Wick said. "This I found was a strength that I wanted to pick up as part of my character, and without the TIES program I may not have found this out about myself. The program also helped push me along my career path in psychology by helping me to realize that I would like to go to grad school and maybe even go for my Ph.D."
My main idea was to change the way the students view the world and their place in it —to make them think about where they are going, why they are going there and what they hope to accomplish once they are there. —Brian Mahoney
Mahoney, who led the development of the TIES program, recalled watching Wick transform from reserved and cautious to a student ready to explore the culture around him and face challenges, including communicating in a new language. The TIES program's life-changing impact on Wick and other students was an outcome Mahoney was aiming for when he created the program.
"The primary objective was to provide a truly transformative educational experience for the students," Mahoney said. "My main idea was to change the way the students view the world and their place in it —to make them think about where they are going, why they are going there and what they hope to accomplish once they are there —to make them think about their education instead of just passively gliding through it."
Wellnitz, who taught the biology section of the program, said the immersive nature of the TIES living-learning experience provides something for students they don't otherwise get from the typical university education.
"We do a good job at universities of educating students and teaching them what they need to know to perform a job but not of shaping them as individuals and helping them determine who they are," Wellnitz said.
All students worry throughout their college careers about the time they'll enter the "real world" and what they'll actually do at that point, he said, adding, "The way the current system works, we don't do anything to really prepare them for that existential crisis. But a program like TIES does."
Not your typical classroom
Argentina, where Mahoney had conducted past research and led student field experiences, was chosen as the first TIES location because of its wealth of interesting aspects.
"Western Argentina is perfect: huge majestic Andes Mountains that are geologically developing in real time;biologic diversity from desert to high alpine;a booming economy, but an economic history that is fascinating;a rich and varied history and culture;and an interesting political history," Mahoney said.
The vision for the TIES program, should it prove to be sustainable, is to offer it in several locations worldwide on a rotating basis, Mahoney said. Vietnam, Cuba and Switzerland have been suggested as possible future sites.
The TIES concept was developed after Mahoney observed, during his previous field excursions, how effective immersive living-learning experiences could be for students.
"It is quite clear that these sorts of experiential immersion activities are a huge boost to student cognitive development and understanding," Mahoney said. "There is no substitute. It just seemed natural to extend this concept to a multidisciplinary activity focused on a central theme —a place-based approach."
Kristopher Benusa, a UW-Eau Claire senior from Arena, said he appreciated learning about Mendoza's geology, biology, economics and culture while actually living there.
"It's not learning about all these things that struck me the most," said Benusa, who has a double major in geology and Spanish. "It was observing them. That was the difference. To see a man come to tears as he talks about his sister who disappeared during the Dirty War, that is intense. It's hearing people talk about losing everything when the economy crashed a decade ago. It's listening to people talk about how the shortages of water are making it hard for them to farm and get by."
Olivia Iverson, a senior geology major from Hudson, agreed.
"The TIES Argentina program strengthened my belief that immersion learning is by far the best way to truly understand what you are learning," she said. "Being able to actually see and experience the things you are learning makes a much deeper impact."
Learning from all angles
Students in the TIES program saw and experienced Argentina from diverse vantage points during the semester, such as expeditions on horseback to examine the ecosystems of the mountains and the desert, a 15-hour bus trip to explore Argentina's capital city of Buenos Aires, tours comparing small family-owned wineries to larger industrial operations, honing geology skills while taking in spectacular views in the Andes, being treated to roasted goat for dinner by their hosts at a base camp and playing soccer with the children in local schools.
TIES participants spent about 40 percent of their time on the road during the semester, Mahoney said, noting that the Mendoza region is approximately the size of California. When they weren't traveling or engaged in projects elsewhere, their home base was a hostel in the city of Mendoza.
Students on the trip were a living-learning community and developed a group identity, Wellnitz said.
"They became this group who cared for one another and looked out for one another," he said. "This was an essential part of what this program was about. They didn't go there just as individuals. They learned about this place as a group."
Tying it all together
The fact that students in the program came from different academic disciplines added to the TIES learning experience, Benusa said.
"It was really interesting to see how students who study economics, history or biology understand or explain geology, my specialty," he said. "Because the majority of us came from different backgrounds of study, we were always able to learn about different viewpoints and discuss ideas and topics from different angles."
Iverson found the interdisciplinary approach of TIES Argentina's curriculum to be among its most important features.
"I think understanding how different subjects are all connected in some way is one of the most important aspects of the TIES program," Iverson said. "This is a major theme that will not end with the TIES program but will carry on into our real lives and future careers. Once we leave college and enter the real world, biologists have to work with geologists who have to work with economists to find solutions to common problems."
The TIES that Bind
The TIES Argentina program received support from UW-Eau Claire's Blugold Commitment initiative. The Blugold Commitment, approved in early 2010 by UW-Eau Claire students and the UW System Board of Regents, is a differential tuition increase of $1,200, phased in over four years, to preserve and enhance the distinctive UW-Eau Claire educational experience. Providing high-impact learning experiences —like TIES Argentina —for all UW-Eau Claire students is one of the goals of the Blugold Commitment."