Hands-on Learning Experiences Take Students across Ecosystems in Tennessee and Central America
April 2018
During spring break, students from CASNR and other colleges across UT stepped into diverse landscapes through their experiences abroad. In “embedded” courses, students registered for 3 credits in spring semester, then attended class on campus here in Knoxville with one twist: they spend their spring break in a different country experiencing the course content. This March, UTIA faculty and lecturers implemented two new embedded courses, one to Costa Rica, the other to Guatemala.
Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a small Central American country about the size of West Virginia. The country is known for the diversity of its vast ecosystem and its green landscapes. Students in the honors course (UNHO 277), “Plants, Parks and People: From the Smokies to San Jose,” traveled in Tennessee and Costa Rica to explore their ecosystems. “[Costa Rica] was amazing… you start from the dry forest biome and drive 40 miles to an area of high rainfall and high altitude. It made the place feel a lot bigger than it is,” explains John Hill (sophomore, bimolecular engineering). Bethany Garland (junior, animal science) expanded on the three different ecosystems, mentioning their visits to the dry forest, cloud forest, and rain forest.
Most of the trip photos are composed of students carefully inspecting the plants and animals in their surroundings. Isabel Soldner (freshman, business) notes, “I would say our tour guide did a very good job leading us. [Normally] when I go the Smokies, I don’t think of stopping and listening but that’s something I’ll take into consideration now.” It was a well-received comment, given one of the course objectives, as Andy Pulte (senior lecturer, Plant Sciences) explained:
“We try to make this point [to students]: You’re going to see more plants than any other organism in your entire life and they have an impact on you: it’s mental, it’s physical, it’s spiritual. There’s all these different ways plants have an impact on you. Hopefully we’ve cured some plant blindness…That when they look around, they notice, that beyond the mechanism of photosynthesis, these plants are having an impact on us in our everyday lives and they make our lives better… and they can take that and move forward.”

Students in Costa Rica prepare coffee plants for transplant.

Where is chocolate derived? Honors students learning about cacao in Costa Rica.

Guatemala is also known for its diverse ecosystems, spanning from the rugged Western highlands down to the lowlands on the southern coast and northern Peru. The course, “Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Challenges in Guatemala” (AGNR 491), challenged students early in the semester to think critically about the contemporary challenges in agricultural and natural resource use in Tennessee, as well as in Guatemala. In Guatemala, students not only experienced these topics personally, but engaged in outreach and extension activities with farmers. Students took the new knowledge they gained from on-campus trips in Knoxville to Guatemala, such as visiting assistant professor Brian Alford’s aquaculture lab (Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries) to explore concepts of tilapia farming.
Kathryn Magee, master’s student in food science, referred to the tilapia workshop her group hosted for Guatemalan farmers when asked about her most unique learning experience on the trip. She explains,
“For me, it was doing the workshops... It was a learning experience that was really humbling, because you’re teaching someone else something really valuable… Tying together everything you learned and having someone take in that information and learn it as well, was a really big moment for a lot of us. Just spending time with farmers and hearing what’s going on in their lives and things that are affecting them was a really good learning experience as well.”
The week abroad also consisted of activities such as installing a drip irrigation system for a rural smallholder farmer, cleaning a beach, learning how to use native plants and materials to dye fabric, and learning how to cook a traditional Guatemalan meal.

Students in Guatemala assembling drip irrigation on a smallholder farmer’s field.

  A Guatemala class.   
One Week Abroad?
Is one week “in country” really enough for students to gain valuable international experience? Hill says “yes,” arguing that “one of biggest things is you can hit the ground running when you get to the country,” because of the regular classroom sessions on campus before the trip. Garland agrees, commenting, “I enjoyed it and enjoyed getting to know my classmates before [traveling] and establishing connections with them before we went.” These two novel classes plan to run again in spring 2019.
Thank you to the following faculty/instructors that made these courses possible:
Andy Pulte and Adam Willcox: “Plants, Parks and People: From the Smokies to San Jose” (UNHO 277)
Amanda Kaeser and Dave Ader: “Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Challenges in Guatemala” (AGNR 491)
This article was submitted by the UTIA Smith International Center (formerly, UTIA International Programs), which exists to advance the international engagement of UTIA by empowering faculty, staff, and students to think and act globally in pursuit of sustainable solutions to our world’s agricultural, food, and natural resource challenges. Visit ag.tennessee.edu/international for additional information and resources.