Out of the Comfort Zone
Reprinted from Bridges Magazine Spring 2014, by Bart Cummins and Anita Rathje
Experiential learning wakes up education
Kate Strangway spent much of last summer in a field in the Kamloops community of Rayleigh, analyzing how well grazing goats kept down invasive weeds like knapweed and thistle.
Her fieldwork—quite literally, in this case—to find out how effective grazing animals are as an alternative to traditional, herbicide-based weed control methods was a project the fourth-year biology student proposed to TRU’s Undergraduate Research Experience Award Program (UREAP). Through the program students can propose research projects for $4,500 or more in UREAP awards, working independently with guidance from a faculty supervisor and experiencing the ins and outs of research first hand.
“I definitely learned more in that one summer doing the fieldwork than I think I learned in the classroom that year,” says Strangway, who was supervised by plant ecologist Dr. Lyn Baldwin. “The learning is reinforced in the field: now a random sample made sense, and I fully understood why you’d take one. It can be tough to get something like that across just in the classroom.”
Though the thoroughness required for each plant was time consuming, she says the payoffs were numerous. “I learned that I am capable of thinking about and applying my classroom knowledge to a real world project, which has substantially boosted my confidence when contemplating my future as a scientist.”
Strangway’s presentation of her findings at TRU’s Undergraduate Research and Innovation Conference in March received the Undergraduate Student Regional Award from the Canadian Botanical Association. Her report has also been passed along to the Southern Interior Weed Management Committee, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the City of Kamloops and the owners of the goatherd.
“It’s amazing that something that I did, that I wrote, is going to impact the whole project of goat grazing in Kamloops, and that someone cares about it,” she says.
Whether they are studying the economics of happiness or investigating how watercraft affects the common loon, UREAP winners say research has taught them to think critically, be adaptable and determined when problems arise, and troubleshoot on the fly.
Beyond the classroom
For those who want to venture further afield for experiential learning opportunities, international practica and field schools, sometimes as brief as two weeks, immerse students in new, global perspectives and intensify learning through hands-on community projects.
Electrical trades student Kristian Nielsen spent two weeks in the Mexican village of Puerto Escondido this spring, installing solar panels in a community without electricity. This is the third year that Foundation Electrical students and faculty members Dana McIntyre and Bruce Campbell have partnered with volunteer organization Esperanza International on solar power projects in small Mexican communities, applying their skills and sharing their knowledge with residents.
“Most of us got to accomplish things in an unorthodox way, be it because of a lack of electricity, someone else using the tools we needed, or just simply not having the tools we’re used to,” says Nielsen. The students installed nine solar panels and infrastructure like wiring to power light bulbs, and showed residents how to maintain the system.
“We also got the chance to pull together with a team of people we may not have worked with before to try and work successfully together,” says Nielsen. Students had to be creative to get around the language barrier. “I think it’s a great thing to know how to do.”
Nursing students have gone to countries such as Thailand, Samoa, Lesotho, Nicaragua and Nepal to put their training to the test for the benefit of communities in need. Lesotho was battling HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis when Rosemary Ritcey (‘10) did a four-week international clinical practice in the small African nation in 2009.
“I was lucky enough to incorporate my passion for pediatric nursing and gain experience on a few different children’s wards there,” she says. “I think about my experience in Lesotho all the time.”
Ritcey, faculty member Wendy McKenzie, and four other students delivered culturally appropriate oral and respiratory hygiene education in four villages. To illustrate how germs pass from person to person, they used coal dust on their hands and played a local clapping game. Their sessions attracted over 80 children, as well as community elders.
“I look at the healthcare that Canadians receive and feel lucky to be here,” says Ritcey, who has been a nurse at BC Children’s Hospital since graduating from TRU four years ago. “After seeing some of the challenges that families in other parts of the world face when trying to access quality healthcare, I’m able to stay positive and maintain perspective on many of the daily challenges I deal with at work.”
“I am so glad that I had the opportunity to experience nursing in another country, especially one like Lesotho.” She hopes to nurse overseas again, with an organization like Operation Smile. “I’d recommend an international practicum to any student with an opportunity to do so; it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Nursing students are in Samoa this May, and other field schools happening this summer include the anthropology trip through eastern and central Europe led by Dr. David Scheffel, now in its 21st year, and a Geography course in Japan, led by Dr. Tom Waldichuk and Cara Cadre. Biology, English and Modern Languages, Adventure Studies and Social Work are just some of the other programs offering students hands-on learning that goes far beyond the classroom.
“I’d recommend an international practicum to any student with an opportunity to do so; it was one of the best experiences of my life.” — Rosemary Ritcey (’10)
Opportunities for the future
Co-operative education work terms provide students with the widest range of opportunities—from positions with top employers to cutting edge research labs and community organizations—to gain practical skills and apply classroom learning, all while earning wages towards the next study term. Much like conducting research, co-op can offer students a glimpse of what life after graduation could look like. For Amy Berard (’13), a co-op experience at the United Way launched her on an entirely new career path.
“Before I had always worked and then become involved in the community after-hours, but now I had a way to bring my passion to work,” says the Business Administration graduate. During her term at the United Way, Berard connected TRU students to the United Way’s youth advisory, facilitated the Youth Day of Caring, and coordinated the annual community carnival. She continued to work with the United Way part-time after her co-op term ended, and was a research assistant for the Homelessness Action Plan. But when graduation loomed, she says she spent months trying to figure out her next move.
“I wrote lists of job titles I wanted, skills I had or wanted to develop, and places I wanted to work. Then I had an ah-ha moment when it hit me how in love I was with my job at United Way and how much I believed in the vision we are trying to achieve. I made a decision at that point to pursue careers within United Way Canada.” Berard was hired immediately after graduation as Events Associate in the Marketing and Engaging department at the Winnipeg United Way, and couldn’t be happier.
“It has changed my life because many people work for a long time, even their entire career, without finding a way to make their professional and personal interests intersect. Without my first summer at United Way—to truly get to know the stories of the community—I would not have found the place I was meant to be.”
Opportunities to transform learning from understanding the concepts to solving real world problems are what make university a life-changing experience. Embracing just one of the many chances for experiential learning at TRU offers lessons to reflect on for a lifetime.
Read more Campus Life - Kamloops articles