Designing Study Abroad With Empathy and Engagement: A Case Study for Project-Based Global Learning Experiences

Designing Study Abroad With Empathy and Engagement: A Case Study for Project-Based Global Learning Experiences

Cathy Cooper, Dominic DelliCarpini, David Fyfe, Annie Nguyen
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3796-1.ch009
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This chapter describes results from a student-driven partnership between York College of Pennsylvania and governmental/non-governmental health agencies in Liberia. Presented as two parallel case studies, and narrating research processes and outcomes of the project, it argues that by combining the empathy techniques of “human-centered design” (commonly known as Design Thinking) with principles of project-based learning, this people-centered method can produce richer global experiences for students. This method can also produce qualitative data that is useful for intercultural problem-solving, and therefore can inform ongoing and productive partnerships that employ a human-centered approach to interdisciplinary collaboration.
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The Players And The Plot

Cathy’s Story: The Genesis of the Project

The global experiences described in this study began with the goals of one of our co-authors, a Liberian student who first envisioned this cross-cultural work in her application to The Graham Innovation Scholars program at York College.1 When Cathy Cooper applied to this program, her goals were stated clearly: to earn an undergraduate degree in a healthcare field, to apply to medical schools, and then to return to her native Liberia to improve its failing healthcare system. But her application also showed the kinds of intercultural understanding that she sought as an individual. She wrote about how her fear of “the consequences of abandoning the standards of my society hampered my opportunities to grow as an individual,” noting how she worked to

become open-minded to the beliefs of others while upholding my beliefs, thus, expanding my knowledge of the world. When I acquired this mindset, I was able to perceive my society beyond its concept of conformity and all its unaddressed inadequacies became evident. In that moment, I developed my authentic temperament. I work hard in school not in an attempt to conquer my peers but to increase my potential by improving my weaknesses personally and academically. In a like manner, my dedication to my education is intensified by my awareness of the unattainable dreams of my peers in Liberia due to the lack of educational growth in the Liberian society. For this reason, I constantly work toward achieving my goal of renewing the healthcare system in Liberia because I know if the system is not renewed, my friends and family members will continue to die hopelessly. I also realized that waiting until I became a doctor before I could give back to my home country was unreasonable….

The program provided her with tools to do that work—an education in Design Thinking and “entrepreneurial mindset,” access to motivated mentors and students, and the resources to travel abroad. But while Cathy knew that she wanted to contribute to the renewal of the healthcare system in her native country, she did not know precisely where or how to begin this work. Though Liberian, she had not returned to her native country since she was 10 years old. As she explored her own heritage, she also found that she had internalized some of the cultural assumptions about her native land that many in the industrialized world have—specifically, those arising from the “single story” mindset that treats Africa as a whole, not as a set of distinct countries.2

Since she was in her heart Liberian, but in her lived experience a US resident, she envisioned a global experience that could help her to address this dual identity. She also hoped that her method could appropriately complicate the misconceptions bred by her US education. With the support of her mentors, Cathy formed a plan for working toward that goal, travelling twice to Liberia to re-experience the culture and to work with high-level officials there. She worked with two other students and the global travel experts at the College, hoping that they all would return from this trip with a deeper understanding of the Liberian culture specifically, but also with a newfound set of perspectives on global culture generally—perspectives that were not clouded by misperceptions about the African continent. Cathy planned learning experiences that would stress open-mindedness, vulnerability, and empathy with the Liberian citizens she wished to serve, using techniques she took from her education in Design Thinking or “human-centered design.”

Key Terms in this Chapter

High-Impact Practices: First delineated by George Kuh as “high-impact educational practices,” this term refers to educational techniques that support deep learning. These practices have also been linked to great retention of knowledge and a higher level of student success.

Entrepreneurial Spirit: The willingness and ability for individuals to take responsibility for problem-solving with the same energy and willingness to innovate that one would use as the proprietor of a business. Entrepreneurial spirit also includes the willingness to take measured risks.

Project-Based Learning (PBL): Project-based learning is an educational technique that uses settings and clients outside the classroom to help students apply their learning to a challenging problem, and to learn creative problem-solving, within those authentic settings. It includes student reflection and feedback from the sponsoring client as key techniques so that students can transfer the knowledge used in a specific case to other projects that they may encounter.

Empathy: Empathy, as used in this essay, refers to an individual’s ability to place oneself into the mindset of another, and especially to take on perspectives that reflect the mindset of those who have differing lived experiences.

Point of View (POV) Statement: A key element of the Design Thinking technique, a POV statement articulates the perspective of a specific user of a planned product or service. The POV statement is used to characterize the deeper, sometimes unarticulated needs of an individual in ways that can then lead to innovative ways to serve those needs.

Rapid Prototype: As with all prototypes, a “rapid prototype” iterates a design concept through modelling, storyboarding, or other creative methods that demonstrate its value and use. A “rapid” prototype is used so that possible designs can be tried out on potential users earlier in a process than is conventional. As such, it allows for multiple re-iteration (or even abandoning) of the ideas with minimal cost in time or other resources.

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