For several years the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee's Atmospheric Science group has offered the faculty-led study abroad program Mexico: Air Pollution and Ancient Cultures. In this course, open to both atmospheric science majors and nonmajors as well as to students attending other colleges and universities, participating students learn about the corrosive effects of acid deposition on the limestone surfaces of Mesoamerican archaeological sites. The course content includes not only the science aspects of acid rain and environmental corrosion, but also aspects of Mesoamerican history and anthropology, as well as personal reflection on a variety of social science topics via journaling. The academic content is delivered via lectures and laboratories, guided tours of museums and archaeological sites, visits to Mexican universities, and hands-on measurements and analysis. Postprogram surveys indicate that participating students consider the program to be quite valuable in terms of both academic and personal growth.
In the faculty-led study abroad program Mexico: Air Pollution and Ancient Cultures, students gain cultural competency and life-changing experiences while learning about the effects of acid deposition on Mesoamerican heritage sites.
The educational benefits of supplementing traditional classroom learning with out-of-classroom experiences are well documented (Kuh 1995). Student participation in internships, co-ops, and research particularly is beneficial in a wide array of academic disciplines (Russell et al. 2007; Thiry et al. 2011), including the atmospheric sciences (e.g., Roebber et al. 2010; Etherton et al. 2011; Quardokus et al. 2012).
Study abroad is another well-established type of out-of-classroom experience with a long list of positive outcomes, including personal growth, intercultural competence, career success, and creative thinking (Twombly et al. 2012; Lee et al. 2012). Traditional study abroad programs involve students attending classes at an out-of-country institution, typically for a semester or an academic year. However, some programs are led and directed by a faculty member from the home campus for a short period of time, from a few weeks during winter break to 8-week summer programs. While a handful of atmospheric science programs offer traditional study abroad opportunities, faculty-led study abroad programs in the atmospheric sciences are nearly nonexistent.
For several years, the atmospheric science program at the University of Wisconsin (UW)–Milwaukee has offered the faculty-led study abroad program Mexico: Air Pollution and Ancient Cultures (Fig. 1) during the 3-week winter break between semesters. The purpose of this article is to describe the program and to provide insight into the development, assessment, and benefits of faculty-led study abroad programs in the atmospheric sciences.
Motivation and origin.
The origins of the program lie in one of the author's (JK's) research activities beginning in 2003 during a sabbatical spent at the University of Mexico. Since then until the present, JK has participated in studies related to the corrosive effects of acid deposition on the limestone surfaces of Mesoamerican archaeological sites (e.g., Kahl et al. 2007). From the start, these studies have included educational components—for example, the development of the webquest Acid Thunder: Saving El Tajín from Acid Rain (https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/kahl/www/WebQuests/Tajin), an interdisciplinary educational activity for middle- and high-school students (Kahl and Berg 2006).
These studies were partially supported by UW–Milwaukee's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS). On one memorable afternoon in 2008, the CLACS director, Dr. Kristin Ruggiero, asked JK, “Have you considered developing a study abroad course on acid rain and its effects on the Mexican ruins?” Following the reply, “No; we don't do study abroad programs in the atmospheric sciences,” Kris very wisely countered, “Why not?” Unable to come up with a defensible reason, JK began to consider and ultimately develop a faculty-led program in Mexico.
The course, entitled Mexico: Air Pollution and Ancient Cultures, investigates the relationship between air pollution and the environmental degradation of cultural heritage sites. In designing the program, many academic-related questions were considered, including these: What will be the academic content of the course? What are the desired outcomes for participating students? How will student work be assessed? What kinds of places will we visit in Mexico? Should the course be available exclusively to atmospheric science majors?
The desired outcomes for students are the ability to 1) describe the physical processes involved in air pollution and environmental corrosion; 2) apply appropriate meteorological and chemical methods to collect rain samples, measure their chemical composition, and estimate the sources of any measured impurities; and 3) recognize the cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, and international context of environmental corrosion at cultural heritage sites.
To ensure sufficient enrollment it was decided to open the program to atmospheric science majors and nonmajors alike, as well as to students attending other colleges and universities in the United States. The scope of the course content was extended beyond the science aspects of acid rain and environmental corrosion in order to increase its intercultural value and to appeal to students with a broader range of backgrounds. The course content includes aspects of Mesoamerican anthropology and history, as well as personal reflection on a variety of social science topics via journaling. The academic content is delivered via lectures and laboratories, guided tours of museums and archaeological sites, and visits to Mexican universities. The diverse cultural delights of Mexico, including historical sites, cuisine, and the arts, are sampled as much as possible.
The itinerary for a recent (January 2013) program, shown in Fig. 2, provides an overview of the course structure. The program began with two days of classroom instruction at the home (University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee) campus, including four hours of Spanish language instruction. The lectures were designed to provide the necessary background information so that students could begin to explore the main program topic once the travel portion started on day 3 (Fig. 2). The laboratory sessions were designed to provide students with the skills needed to complete an assigned meteorological laboratory exercise (Table 1).
The travel portion of the program included visits to archaeological sites in Mexico City, Papantla, Oaxaca, and Palenque (Fig. 3). These sites were selected in order to sample a range of different pre-Hispanic civilizations, as well as diverse climates, site architectures, and archaeological reconstruction and preservation methodologies. At each site, a tour by a licensed, English-speaking guide provided contextual insight into the history, life, and culture of the civilization that once inhabited the site.
The program also included visits to the University of Mexico in Mexico City and the Autonomous University of Carmen (UNACAR) in Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche. Faculty members at these universities and at the University of Campeche, which was visited in earlier offerings of the program, are active investigators in studies of air pollution and material degradation (Anrubio Vega et al. 2007; Reyes et al. 2009; Cerón Bretón et al. 2012). These researchers graciously provided presentations, hands-on workshops, and campus tours to the UW–Milwaukee student groups (Fig. 4). While the academic value of the Mexican university programs was considerable, the social interaction with Mexican students was another rewarding outcome of our university visits. The UW–Milwaukee students made long-lasting friendships that enabled them to better understand their own cultural biases and to develop more sophisticated ways of viewing the world.
Student work is assessed according to the schedule shown in Table 1. While attendance and participation comprise the bulk of the students' grades, three additional assignments also are required. The first of these is a short, pretravel research paper on limestone, in which students address the following questions: What exactly is limestone? Where does it come from? Where can limestone be found in Latin America? Why was it commonly favored as a building material by pre-Hispanic civilizations? How does limestone erode in the presence of acidic precipitation? The second assignment is a meteorology laboratory exercise, a mini-research project in which students collect a rain sample while in Mexico and measure its pH (Fig. 5). After returning to Milwaukee, students apply the Hybrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory(HYSPLIT) model (Draxlerand Hess 1998) to determine the possible sources of the contaminants in their rain sample. Students receive instruction on how to perform these activities during the pretravel portion of the program (Fig. 2). The third assignment, the trip journal, is a vehicle for students to provide thoughtful reflection on complex issues related to the preservation of cultural artifacts. The daily journal questions also encourage students to think about cultural sensitivity and to interact with Mexican citizens they encounter. A sample of the daily journal questions is shown in Table 2.
Planning and logistics.
Unlike traditional classroom teaching, a study abroad course requires extensive logistical planning. In addition to preparing the academic content, the faculty leader must arrange for international and in-country domestic transportation, lodging, and meals. The Mexico: Air Pollution and Ancient Cultures course required additional arrangements for tour guides and academic programs conducted at Mexican universities.
During the program's initial design phase in 2008, JK secured a course development grant from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee's Center for International Education. This grant supported a brief “laying the breadcrumbs” trip to Mexico that enabled information-gathering on transportation and lodging options at the various course destinations and tour guides at museums and archaeological sites. This trip also facilitated meetings with some of JK's Mexican faculty colleagues to discuss plans for hosting visits of student groups at their universities.
In 2009, with both an academic and a logistical plan in place, it was time to establish the study abroad program formally. The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee's Study Abroad Programs office, an active and knowledgeable unit serving over 100 programs, provided considerable assistance with the process. Since the program was established the Study Abroad Programs office has assisted with advertising, travel/lodging reservations, and student communication regarding applications, passports, financial aid, and scholarship opportunities, among other issues.
As of this writing, the program has been offered three times: in 2010, 2011, and 2013 (the program director, JK, was on sabbatical leave in 2012). A total of 26 students have participated, 11 (42%) of them atmospheric science majors. On postprogram evaluations administered by the program director, 96% of the students responded to the question
I ___________ recommend this course to other students.
a) would not b) would c) would enthusiastically
with answer c, and 4% with answer b. In the sense of student satisfaction, therefore, the program clearly has been a success. (All but two students answered this question, a response rate of 92%.)
Of perhaps greater interest and importance, however, is this question, “What is the value of the program?” Results from postprogram surveys administered separately by the UW–Milwaukee Study Abroad Programs office provide some insight (Table 3). Regarding the program's academic component (questions 1–3), responses indicate that 85%–93% of the students considered the program to be valuable, challenging, and applicable to their future studies. An improvement in study and research skills was cited by 79% of students (question 4). Ninety-three percent of students gained an understanding of the cross-cultural and international context of the program topic (question 5), while, not surprisingly, all students reported a better understanding of Mexican culture (question 6). An improvement in leadership skills was cited by 78% of students (question 7), while 93% reported improvements in thought and decision-making processes (question 8). All students felt the experience was rewarding (question 9).
Further insight into the value of the program was provided by the evaluations administered by the program director. One question asked, “Was this course valuable to you? Why or why not?” Many of the responses cited benefits related to personal growth, such as the examples below:
“The trip was so diverse in its life lessons—it had academic, social, linguistic, touristic, and many other benefits.”
“The course was fantastic. I saw a different country, visited historically significant artifacts, and pondered questions about historical preservation.”
“Incredibly valuable to my education and personal development.”
Others cited benefits related to the depth of learning:
“I've learned more in the past two weeks than I have in a long time.”
“I enjoy going out and experiencing everything firsthand rather than sitting in a classroom.”
“I learned so much about Mexico—cultural heritage, air pollution, etc. I am now interested in several topics that I would never have imagined being eager to explore previous to this course.”
Still others commented on issues related to intercultural competence:
“I can't think of a better way to earn college credit. It incorporates lessons and research as well as cultural experience.”
“Experiencing a different country and people just gives you a better respect for what you have and what you don't need.”
The types of value-added, out-of-classroom experiences provided by the Mexico: Air Pollution and Ancient Cultures course are highly correlated with satisfaction and success after college (Kuh 1995). Intercultural competency, in particular, is an important skill in an increasingly global economy (Twombly et al. 2012). While the survey results indicate significant course value for all participants (based on student self-report), the meteorology students may benefit preferentially by gaining a comparative understanding of professional and research practices in both the United States and Mexico. Several of the atmospheric science majors cited the course as an influence in their decision to pursue graduate studies (see the sidebar on “Student comments”).
This study abroad course changed my life. I was immensely surprised by how much I learned and grew in just three weeks. –Brittany Delahanty (Global Studies)
Studying abroad in Mexico was a phenomenal experience—it increased my confidence and sense of adventure and broadened my worldview and cultural perspective. As an Atmospheric Science major, I also gained appreciation for the variety of research opportunities available in this field and for different methods of approaching research problems. But perhaps most instrumentally, this trip helped me to realize the importance of taking risks and doing things I might have previously been too afraid to try. Stemming from this realization, I decided to move across the country for graduate school. This decision has led to some of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences in my life thus far. –Leah Grant (Atmospheric Science)
The experience I gained through this trip was greatly beneficial. I grew as a person. I had never been so far away from home for an extended period of time without my family before. This experience helped influence me to pursue a master's degree at The Florida State University because I knew what it would feel like to be far away from home. –Jeremy Rodriguez (Atmospheric Science)
I enjoyed myself so much that I went on another study abroad trip to Italy. There is nothing like immersing yourself in another culture. I would recommend it for any student. –Jason Laux (Art: Painting and Drawing)
We had fascinating conversations about many different issues, and I was able to view problems from a completely different perspective. I find it extremely valuable to have to confront one's preconceived ideas about people of another country, and gaining that new perspective was the best thing I took away from the course. –Connie Jo (Archaeology)
I have made lots of decisions I would not have made before studying abroad. –Peter Coulter (Business Administration)
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS.
Designing and implementing a faculty-led study abroad program presents several challenges. However, many colleges and universities offer administrative and financial support for program development and logistics. On some campuses, faculty peer mentoring programs are available to assist interested faculty members in linking existing research activities with potential overseas partner institutions. These resources can reduce considerably the effort required to develop a faculty-led study abroad program. Once the course is established, it may be challenging to maintain sufficient enrollment to conduct the program as often as desired. Effective marketing is necessary to make a program sustainable, as are scholarship opportunities for students with demonstrated economic need. In addition, it is advisable to alter the course content slightly in successive offerings to keep the experience fresh and exciting for the program leader.
Leading the Mexico: Air Pollution and Ancient Cultures program has been a rewarding experience for the course director (JK). It is enjoyable to forge close relationships with diverse groups of students in the unique context of traveling together for a few weeks throughout a foreign country, and gratifying to be involved in providing a meaningful learning experience for them. In addition, regular visits to colleagues and collaborators at overseas universities provide opportunities to continue and broaden one's research activities.
There are benefits to the overseas university partners as well (see the sidebar on “Perspectives from an overseas faculty colleague”). Participating faculty members generally are recognized by their university administration for their participation in international activities. Hosting study abroad groups thus may serve as a career advancement instrument for them. The universities themselves gain local recognition, as media interviews typically are involved. Moreover, students at the overseas universities gain intercultural experience via their interaction with the UW–Milwaukee students. This interaction typically is both academic (Fig. 4) and social, and it also provides opportunities for the students in the host country to practice their English language skills.
Since 2009, all of UNACAR's undergraduate programs have been accredited by the National Program for Faculty Improvement (PROMEP), an organization that evaluates the quality of university education in Mexico. In 2012, as part of our efforts toward educational excellence, UNACAR joined the Mexican Universities Consortium (CUMEX), whose mission is to build a strong alliance of the providers of higher education in Mexico. To comply with CUMEX requirements, UNACAR students and academic staff are required to seek national and international exchange programs, to host international visiting professors regularly, and to meet with students from other universities throughout Mexico and the world.
In January of 2011 and 2013, students from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee visited UNACAR. They took part, together with UNACAR students, in workshops on the “Analysis and Perspectives of Acid Deposition.” In these workshops UNACAR and UW–Milwaukee students exchanged experiences in a friendly, social setting.
UNACAR faculty and students presented their research results on this environmental problem. As part of this visit students worked in UNACAR laboratories to determine the chemical composition of precipitation samples using chemical analysis equipment. The laboratory demonstrations helped the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee students, some of whom had no previous laboratory experience, to learn about the sampling and analysis techniques that are used to study atmospheric deposition.
All of these activities were valuable to the academic development of UNACAR students. The activities conveyed the importance of globalization in all areas of study, and the necessity of learning English to communicate with students and faculty from around the world.
The Milwaukee students' visits also have a positive impact on UNACAR's Chemical Engineering Program, helping us to comply with the requirements dictated by PROMEP and CUMEX. In addition, the intercultural and interdisciplinary exchange of student and faculty experiences regarding the problem of atmospheric deposition enables a wealth of perspectives that can be helpful in resolving the problem.
Most UNACAR students do not have the opportunity to travel abroad. Visits from foreign students and professors provide the opportunity to share both academic and personal experiences. These types of experiences not only enrich the students' academic development, but also their personal lives.
Faculty-led study abroad is a rewarding option for integrating teaching and research. These programs can provide students with meaningful out-of-classroom experiences that promote a combination of academic, intercultural, and personal growth. In our opinion, the rewards of conducting a faculty-led study abroad program well compensate the effort involved in its development.
The authors thank the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee's Study Abroad Programs office for their high-quality administrative and logistical support. The generous hospitality and cooperation of our Mexican colleagues Carmen Guadalupe Carballo Pat, Rosa Cerón, and Jesús Guerra (Universidad Autónoma del Carmen); Javier Reyes and Tezozomoc Pérez (Universidad Autónoma de Campeche); and Ana Alarcón, Humberto Bravo, Pablo Sanchez, Rodolfo Sosa, and Rogelio Soto (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in hosting our student groups and presenting academic programs is very much appreciated. Helpful discussions with UW–Milwaukee colleagues Tom Danner and Connie Jo improved the presentation of this article. Financial support for the program was kindly provided by UW–Milwaukee's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Center for International Education, College of Letters and Sciences, and Mathematical Sciences Department.