May, 2019: Success in the coffee fields & classrooms

May, 2019: Success in the coffee fields & classrooms

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By Caroline L. Payne, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science & Director of the Lycoming College Interdisciplinary Program in the Dominican Republic

Lycoming students and faculty returned to the Dominican Republic once again this past May for another unforgettable field experience. The group included students enrolled in Caroline Payne’s spring semester PSCI 256 Globalization and Sustainable Development course and in Dr. Rachel Hickoff-Cresko’s EDUC 255 Teaching Linguistically and Economically Diverse Learners; a student who accompanied Dr. Jeremy Ramsey as his Chemistry research assistant; former director of the Center for Energy and the Future, Dr. Jonathan Williamson; a translator for the Education group; a Wilderness First Responder from the Outdoor Leadership and Education program; and the roaster from Alabaster Coffee Roaster and Tea Co.

We completed four major projects on this trip. The Political Science group worked to continue empowering coffee farmers to produce high quality coffee, with the long-term goal of enabling the El Naranjito Association to sell their coffee to more specialty coffee buyers than just Lycoming College at a significantly higher price than the traditional domestic market pays. Students utilized what they had learned in their spring course, meetings with individuals and groups of producers, and assessments of farms that we visited to design a microlending program that will allow members of the Association to upgrade their farm-level processing equipment. The program, which will officially be launched this fall, organizes members into accountability groups who will decide on which member receives the first loan to purchase or repair equipment that de-pulps, washes, and dries their coffee. Once that member pays back their loan, the group will decide on the next member to receive a loan to do the same thing, a process that will continue until all members have good quality processing equipment. The loan fund itself is made possible from Warrior Coffee sales profits. The Association will administer the loan fund but will continue to collaborate with Lycoming students to ensure its effectiveness, as well as their continued learning about effective development programs.

The Education group worked with teachers and students at the Los Jobos school in Peralta and the Juan Bosch and Las Terrenas International schools in Las Terrenas. At each school, Lycoming students taught lessons in various content areas (Math, Science, Geography, etc.) using coffee as the vehicle. For instance, once student taught math using coffee beans for counting; another taught about the geography of the country by focusing on what agricultural goods were produced in each region; and another taught about the life cycle of a coffee plant. Beyond teaching important material to students, a primary goal of their work was to use these lessons as a means of demonstrating effective pedagogical practices for the teachers at each of these schools so that there is a lasting impact for educators and students alike. In the same vein, at the request of Juan Bosch’s administrative leadership, Dr. Hickoff-Cresko and her students led a special training with their teachers on effective classroom management with specific focus on handling disciplinary issues. This is a testament to the relationship that the Interdisciplinary Dominican Republic Program— with much help from 2018-2019 Fellow Brittney Gross— has cultivated with this particular school.

Dr. Jeremy Ramsey and his research assistant continued two projects during their time in the DR. First, Dr. Ramsey made advancements in developing an effective technique to analyze the chemical composition of coffee at farm-level. Dr. Ramsey’s long-term goal is to gain a better understanding of how environmental factors impact the chemical composition of coffee. Most impressively, his work is the product of him and his research team developing methods of performing sophisticated chemical analyses in the field without the use of traditional laboratory instrumentation. Dr. Ramsey also continued analyzing water quality in Las Terrenas. While last year’s research team studied fresh water, with a specific focus on the river that runs through the city and is thought to be a significant threat to public health, this year’s team built on that by analyzing the quality of salt water in relation to its distance from those fresh water sources.

Finally, the entire group continued its commitment to ensuring students have safe places to play by building two playgrounds. The first was built at the Los Jobos school in Peralta and is the first playground at a school in the town. In addition to a balance beam, tire climbing structure, and seesaws, we built benches so that students will now have a place to eat their lunch and socialize (previously they ate on the ground or sitting on sidewalks). Teachers, community members, and even students pitched in to help the group build the playground and benches, which is a testament to the power of community and collaboration. The second playground was constructed at the Los Puentes School in Las Terrenas and included seesaws, a climbing pyramid, and a volleyball court. This is the seventh playground Lycoming groups have constructed in Las Terrenas. Beyond wanting children to have safe places to play— a fairly foreign concept in this part of the world— these playgrounds also incentivize school attendance, which clearly has some important additional benefits.  

Also of note is the fact that this year’s field experience was the first fully interdisciplinary trip in our program’s history. All students spent the spring semester preparing for their experience together as part of a weekly one-credit lab and collaborated on project preparation as part of that lab. We are forever working toward improving the field experience for each and every participant and believe that an invaluable component is the interdisciplinary learning that takes place. As such, faculty continue to create cross-disciplinary opportunities for learning so that students are not only prepared to jump into each and every project but, more importantly, realize that lifelong learning often means stepping outside your educational background and training and into unfamiliar terrain to solve complex and meaningful problems. Drs. Ramsey, Hickoff-Cresko, and I look forward to continue providing Lycoming students with these opportunities for interdisciplinary, international service-learning in the Dominican Republic.