February 4, 2019

Cornell Volunteers Travel to Colombia to Promote Higher Education in Biology

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Over winter break, eight Cornell volunteers collaborated with seven students from the Universidad del Magdalena in Santa Marta, Colombia, to teach biology to Liceo Samario high school students.

For some time, Prof. Timothy DeVoogd, psychology, has been trying to create international experiences for Cornell students in the sciences. He realized that one way to promote students’ international involvement might be to work with peers in Latin America over winter break.

DeVoogd proposed the idea to Carlos Coronado, director of International Relations at the University of Magdalena. Coronado then found a public high school in which 80 percent of its students come from families below the Colombian poverty line, DeVoogd said.

“Carlos selected seven students from the University of Magdalena to work with us, and a kind of magic happened,” DeVoogd said.

The Cornellians were in Colombia from the beginning of January until the start of the spring semester.

“We used the first week as a preparation week: meeting our University of Magdalena partners, exploring the high school and Santa Marta, and developing our classes and activities,”  Christine Relander ’20 said in an email. The next two weeks was the teaching portion.

Each of the Cornell volunteers worked closely with students from Universidad del Magdalena in Santa Marta. Volunteers from both schools were split into four different groups to teach a specific aspect of biology.

“The four concepts we taught about were the circulatory system, microbiology, vaccines, and nutrition,” Amrit Hingorani ’20 said in an email.  According to Hingorani, these concepts were important topics that the high school students may never have been exposed to before.

According to Relander, most of the group of Cornell students were Biological Sciences majors, with one Developmental Sociology major and one Biology and Society major.

To make the learning experience more interactive and enjoyable, volunteers had to get creative. “This meant taking the abstract theories and concepts mentioned in lecture and turning them into interactive games, demonstrations, simulations, and competitions,” Natalie Brown ’20 said.

For example, the immune system and vaccines group volunteers and students acted out the concept of herd immunity in a sort of dodgeball fashion. “An infected person threw balls at other members of the community — those that were unvaccinated couldn’t run around or move their arms,” Brown said.

According to Brown, the “vaccinated” students figured out pretty quickly that it was their job to protect those that couldn’t fend for themselves.

“We saw the light bulbs go off in their heads when they connected this back to immunocompromised individuals,” Brown said.

To further promote interactive learning, the Cornell at Magdalena program donated small cardboard microscopes called “Foldscopes,” premade slides and blood pressure cuffs to Liceo Samario High School.

“We had them take each other’s blood pressures and pulses in the circulatory unit and look at local water samples under microscopes in microbiology,” Hingorani said.

Volunteers also tried to leverage this interactive approach to promote sustainable community influence. For example, Paula Fogel ’20 made sure to emphasize the mechanisms and impact of antibiotic resistance.

“Antibiotics can be bought over the counter in many parts of Latin America and many people frequently use antibiotics for colds and flus that they’re not appropriate for,” Fogel said. According to Fogel, by the end of the two weeks, the students had a new appreciation for the negative effects of antibiotic resistance in their own communities and how to counteract it.

“As many of the students expressed interest in becoming doctors in the future, it’s my hope that they will be able to advocate for decreased antibiotic usage both among their future patients and with their family now,” Fogel said.

In addition to teaching students about core biology concepts, the Cornell and Magdalena students described what it was like to be in university and how to choose a major.

“The purpose of these meetings was to give the students a more realistic representation of college education from people that are in university and to spark an interest in them to seek higher education above the high school level,” Treasure Nwokeleme ’21 said.

The program had a lasting influence on the students, Karen Franco ’19 said.

“Some students claimed that this experience helped them solidify the career path that they wanted to explore in college,” Franco said. “Some students even claimed to be inspired to learn English and to study abroad in the United States.”

While the Liceo Samario high school students did most of the learning, “the Cornell and Magdalena students who led the activities, similarly, seem excited with what they learned about their own ability to teach and perhaps even change lives,” DeVoogd said.