Biology students teach STEM curriculum in Colombia

Eight Arts & Sciences students spent winter break in Colombia, collaborating with Colombian undergraduate students from the University of Magdalena to teach students at a public school in the coastal city of Santa Marta. The students spent their time carrying out STEM enrichment projects in the school, which primarily serves students from disadvantaged communities.

Tim DeVoogd, professor of psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences, created the trip as a way to make going abroad more attractive to STEM students at Cornell. He first visited and met scientists and educators in government and at universities in Colombia 10 years ago when he spent a year working for the U.S. State Department as a Jefferson Science Fellow. DeVoogd ran a program in which Cornell alumni worked for several weeks with Colombian undergraduate students on English usage specifically in their discipline — special vocabulary and approaches in ecology, engineering, ag sciences, etc.

“A couple of years ago, I realized that I had two key elements for a program abroad—it would be short term and we would teach what students have learned,” DeVoogd said. “I then found a partner in Carlos Coronado, director of international relations at Magdalena University, and we started looking for money and participants.”

DeVoogd and Coronado funded the project with a $25,000 grant from the MetLife Foundation Study Abroad Innovation Competition, a part of the 100,000 Strong in The Americas Innovation Fund (a public-private sector collaboration aimed at supporting and funding education initiatives and create new opportunities for student exchange and training in the Americas). An engaged opportunity grant from Engaged Cornell, Cornell's Latin American Studies Program and the International Agriculture and Rural Development program also helped cover expenses, which included  the supplies for teaching, travel and living costs of the students making the trip, and lunches and snacks daily for the high school students, many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The students who made the trip were: Natalie Kay Brown ‘20, Karina Villarroel ‘20, Karen Daniela Giraldo Franco ‘19, Jose Gamarra ‘20, Treasure Chizurum Nwokeleme, ‘21 Christine Relande ‘20r, Paula Fogel ‘20, and Amrit Hingorani ’20.

As a Colombian native and biological sciences student, the program sounded like the perfect opportunity for Giraldo Franco. “This program gave me an opportunity to make a change in my home country with the knowledge that I have acquired in biological sciences at Cornell, and it allowed me to gain experience teaching in Spanish,” she said.

Before their trip, the students took a fall semester seminar, which focused on integrating into the host culture, and included research and discussion about important social, political and cultural factors within Colombia. The students Skyped weekly with their Colombian counterparts to discuss lesson plans and activities.

Once in Colombia, the students from Cornell and Magdalena University taught two groups of either 9th or 11th graders each day, in 1.5 hour sections. They focused on a range of topics related to the life sciences, including microbiology, the circulatory system and immunology.

“Widespread acceptance and access to vaccinations has always been a public health passion of mine ever since I did a high school thesis on the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S.,” said Brown, who is studying biology and society and English. “Our group then expanded beyond vaccines to also teaching about the immune system, vector-borne diseases, cancer and other topics that the kids asked to learn about.”

Giraldo Franco said the students were enthralled by the lessons for a variety of reasons. “We got a lot of comments on how they were so interested in the topics they were learning because they were taught in so much more depth that they were used to, and because it was information about real life matters (such as health) and information that they had never been exposed to before.”

DeVoogd and Coronado thought the collaboration between American and Colombian undergraduates would be a fruitful and rewarding partnership. “[We] felt that having the CU and Colombian students work together would reinforce the content that they would be presenting, and would lead to each side appreciating the approach and knowledge and culture of the other,” DeVoogd said.

Both Brown and Giraldo Franco emphasized how helpful the Colombian undergraduates were in conveying the lessons.

“Teaching in Spanish can be quite a challenge for some, because although we are very familiar with the biology information and terminology, it is completely different in a new language,” Giraldo Franco said. “Not only that, but being able to have a conversation with students or answer questions,can be challenging too. The presence of the Colombian undergraduates really helped in conveying that information, of really emphasizing some topics or even answering the questions that the students had.”

“The kids would get really excited and ask questions rapidly, so their assistance with translation was key,” Brown said.  “The collaboration was great for teaching, as well as for getting to know them in general, what growing up in Colombia was like, passions they have, and how college has gone for them.”

Although he was uncertain how effective his students would be at teaching the high schoolers, DeVoogd said he was blown away by the actual experience. “The undergrads had materials that the high school kids were fascinated with,” he said. “They became able to adapt their teaching on the fly to add games or modify presentations to hold attention. It felt like all the groups involved won in the process.

“On the first day, I asked the 60 high school kids how many thought it might be interesting to go to college,” DeVoogd said. “Fewer than half raised their hands. On the last day, I asked again, and virtually all did. I ate lunch with the high school kids. After a few days, they started asking me questions, including whether Cornell ever admitted students from abroad. The bottom line —the work by the students is likely to have made a lasting impact on the lives of the high school students.“

“What I absolutely loved and still cherish is getting to know the kids we were teaching,” Brown said. “Their enthusiasm was beyond infectious – they had questions about anything and everything during lecture, and both picked up and retained the material with impressive ability. I still keep in touch with some of the students via messenger and social media, as they enjoy learning and practicing their English.”

As a native Colombian, the experience was everything Giraldo Franco hoped it would be. “Being able to come back and relay my knowledge and experiences to aspiring college students in my own country, and seeing them get inspired to one day do the same as me or to achieve higher education, was the most rewarding experience that I could get,” she said. “Seeing them enjoy learning about all the materials we taught and seeing that a native Colombian had achieved studying at such a great institution in the states, was inspiring to them, and rewarding for me.”

On the last night of the program, there was a ceremony that the parents and officials from the University of Magdalena attended. The students received certificates and gave presentations to the audience based on the topics they had learned.

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