In one of her first experiences as a Penn State student, Callan Glover went caving in Jamaica to see the island’s underground aquifer system.
“We learned about Jamaica’s water system and how that relates to sustainability on the island. We got to see underground aquifers where water goes. It was a great first-hand experience,” said Glover, a first-year student majoring in geosciences.
Glover and 14 other first-year Penn State students spent a week in Jamaica as part of their Learning Edge Academic Program (LEAP) offered through the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS).
Through the six-week, two-course program, students experience sustainability in a hands-on way, says Neil Brown, research associate for Penn State’s Department of Geography and the Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering and Development in Africa (AESEDA), who co-instructs one of the two EMS LEAP courses with Kristin Thomas, a graduate student in Recreation, Park and Tourism Management. The second EMS LEAP course, focusing on scientific communication, is taught by Kimberly Del Bright, the Giles Writer-in-Residence for EMS.
“In the EMS LEAP course, we’re trying to prepare students for their first semester while at the same time helping them to realize that there’s a big world out there, and other cultures face very different challenges than what we face in the U.S. We want students to use that global awareness to inform their decision making on campus,” said Brown.
During the weeklong trip, students visited sustainability-related sites to investigate how different communities in Jamaica were impacted by four sustainability-related topics: overfishing, automobile emissions, biodiversity and eco-tourism.
“This was an awesome class because we were able to take what we learned in the classroom for the first four weeks and put it to use. When we interviewed people in Jamaica about different sustainability issues, they reiterated a lot of the same ideas we had read or talked about in class,” says Connor Gingrich, a first-year student majoring in energy business and finance.
The students immersed themselves in a new culture by staying overnight in multiple communities across Jamaica. At Durga’s Den, a sustainable community that promotes the idea of living simply and sustainably, students helped out with daily tasks of the community, which included making deodorant from naturally occurring ingredients, picking fruit, building garden beds and creating compost heaps. At a Jamaican-run hotel, students learned how a Jamaican business approached sustainability. In a region known as Cockpit Country, the students stayed with Jamaican host families and learned more about their day-to-day lives.
“This class gives them a taste so they can think a little bit more globally, and think about sustainability issues that have a personal component and that will be discussed in many of their future classes,” says Brown.
Being immersed in a new culture helps students break out of their comfort zones — and handling this kind of stress is fundamental to their academic success, said Del Bright.
“Being out of your comfort zone stretches you emotionally and mentally, and learning how to deal with that stress is something students will call upon throughout their college career,” she said.
After returning from their trip, students worked in groups to produce digital documentaries and presented their work to the class.
“Looking back, we all felt like global citizens. Part of global citizenship is learning how people adapt to different environments around the world, and that’s what we did in this class. It forced us to think differently about our culture when we walked into a culture that was not related to ours,” said Gingrich.