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By MIKE McINALLY
The original idea was to create a program that would allow Oregon State University students to spend two weeks studying on the Caribbean island country of Aruba.
The coronavirus pandemic sidelined that plan. But it didn’t stop three OSU faculty members (Larry Becker, Itchung Cheung and Dwaine Plaza) and a colleague from the University of Aruba (Eric Mijts) from figuring out a way to deliver the next best thing – an experimental class during 2021’s spring term that attracted 14 students, from both OSU and Aruba, to learn more about the coastlines in both countries.
The class, “Coasts Compared,” highlighted ways in which technological tools like Zoom can be used to create interactive, engaging classroom offerings. It gave students the chance to interact with counterparts from another country. It also planted the seeds of friendship among the students -- and has prompted some of them to considering changing their future plans.
“It did seem a bit like a study abroad program,” said one of the participating students, Briana Foster of OSU, “even though we were confined to our desks at home.”
“Coasts Compared” owes its genesis to a set of international connections. And a bit of luck didn’t hurt, added Eric Mijts, the University of Aruba professor who helped create the class.
Before coming to Oregon State University in 2011, anthropology professor Lisa Price had worked at universities in the Netherlands, including a stint at University College Utrecht. Through this connection, she met Mijts, who helps run a program in which Utrecht students travel to Aruba for studies.
Plaza, a professor of sociology in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, and another architect of the “Coasts Compared” class, picks up the story: After Price arrived at OSU, she invited Mijts to visit Oregon.
Mijts toured OSU’s Corvallis campus, visited the university’s Hatfield Marine Sciences Center in Newport and met with faculty members, including Plaza, who specializes in Caribbean studies. The two professors hit it off, and Mijts invited Plaza to travel to Aruba to give guest lectures in a University of Aruba program called the “Academic Foundation Year” – a one-year program in which students transition from high school to the university.
As Plaza continued his annual trips to Aruba to deliver his lectures, he and Mijts started working on plans for a program in which OSU students would visit Aruba and vice versa. But the pandemic stalled those plans and so in 2020, Plaza delivered his guest lectures in the Academic Foundation Year via Zoom.
But he was thinking about doing something different in 2021: “Can we actually have a situation where students from both sides can have a class?” Work began on crafting the curriculum for what would become “Coasts Compared.”
“The concept of coastlines compared is brilliant,” Mijts said, “because it gives you so much opportunity to talk about anything from geography to geomorphology to climate to invasive species to marine environments to the economy.”
A key goal from the beginning was to create an interdisciplinary course, so two other OSU faculty members joined the effort: biologist Cheung of the Hatfield Marine Science Center and geographer Becker of the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science. Another goal, Plaza said, was to bring the class under the banner of the College of Liberal Arts’ Marine Studies Initiative.
“And we wanted to make sure that students from various disciplines could actually take it,” Plaza said.
The team worked beginning in the fall of 2020 to hash out the details of “Coasts Compared,” building the curriculum and assembling guest lecturers from throughout the world. Then they set out to recruit the first batch of students, using social networks and other tools to spread the word. Some students didn’t need much persuading: For OSU student Mikayla Reed Reuter, “I actually have wanted to study ocean science ever since I was a little kid.”
Other students signed up at the suggestion of one of the faculty members involved in the class: OSU’s Foster, for example, took the class after Becker suggested that she’d be a good fit.
The class was designed as a lower-division course at OSU (it carried the “299” designation, reserved for classes that are experimental), in part so Mijts could recruit students from Aruba’s Academic Foundation Year program. One unexpected result: “Some of the students were very young,” Plaza recalled. “They were competing with higher-level students.”
But the class was designed to encourage cooperation over competition, and Plaza said the students made commitments to each other to tackle the work. For one assignment, the students were divided into smaller groups, each containing at least one OSU student and one Aruban student, and told to make an educational YouTube video that could be used by high school students to understand a coastal issue. The assignment required the students to work together.
Melanie Richardson, one of the students from Aruba, worked with Foster to create their video, which compared the economies of Aruba and coastal Oregon; Foster even performed flute music for the video’s soundtrack. The two struck up a friendship – and even plan to visit each other once the pandemic eases. You can watch the Richardson-Foster video at this website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJ-ZDdo5nVU
The class might end up altering Richardson’s plans: She’s studying law now at the University of Aruba and has long thought she would practice criminal law. But now, she’s looking at possibly taking up environmental law.
And Foster’s work in interviewing people in Newport for the video she made with Richardson has prompted her to declare journalism as a minor. Foster said the interviews highlighted what she sees as a gap between scientists and coastal communities: “I got this deep passion and desire to help bridge that gap,” and she thinks journalism could help do that.
For her part, Reuter liked how the class was set up to emphasize interaction: “It would have been really cool to be able to visit these areas and see things firsthand,” she said. “That being said, this was a lot better than other Zoom classes, where everyone has their cameras off all the time and there was no interaction, no conversation at all. So especially as ‘Zoom World’ goes, it was nice and refreshing.”
Mijts gave credit to Plaza for creating an inclusive climate in the class, in part by inviting students to share a highlight of their day or week. As the class went on, Mijts said, the students started to open up, “to share ideas, feelings, emotions that were really relevant.”
“One of the things I really learned from this is that an online class can be highly engaging when you bring together students from different backgrounds, as long as you create an inclusive atmosphere,” Mijts said.
Plans are to continue offering “Coasts Compared” – and Plaza believes that Zoom, along with the other online platforms that made the class possible, will continue to be essential parts of education.
“I think it’s a very important tool,” he said, “and it’s emerged right at the moment when we need to take full advantage of it and it becomes second nature to us.”
And he added that a big part of what made “Coasts Compare” click was the teamwork among the faculty members who created the class: “When we came together, we really tried to find the linkages that bring us all together for a class like this, but under the umbrella of marine studies,” he said.
“It’s the best of all our worlds, what we put into this.”
Coasts Compared: Aruba & Oregon 2021