Published in University World News.
The empathy, connectedness and flexibility skills taught to students during an innovative international problem-solving programme at the University of Oregon (UO) in the United States have manifested themselves in three prize-winning solutions to community problems.
These focused on environmental degradation, social inequality and public health, with students having 10 days this month to develop ground-breaking ideas for action at an Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) Undergraduate Leaders’ Program.
These were developed after students attended skills-building workshops and gained effective research tools, while working in small groups to devise solutions to specific problems.
Winning solutions were selected by three community organisations from UO, based in Eugene. Shared characteristics included being affordable and easily implemented using resources that were already in place. Each solution would start with a pilot programme, which could be practically scaled-up to serve larger population areas as resources increased.
Representing BRING Recycling, a non-profit dedicated to reducing waste, Christine Scafa selected ‘environmental degradation group three’ as a winner. Chau Tran (University of California, Irvine), Eliza Amstutz (University of California, Los Angeles), Dai Wei Ouyang (Tsinghua University, Beijing), Nakita Daniel (University of Auckland, New Zealand) and Sara Espinosa (UO resource student) devised a two-day summer programme designed to teach elementary school students about how to be more mindful of their food consumption.
The group’s solution included an in-class workshop and facility tour to show the behind-the-scenes process of food production to encourage healthy eating and leaving a clean plate. To encourage composting, the students would be given personalised food collection bins to take home.
Potential to influence older generations
“This solution is in line with BRING’s mission of education – accessing people through children is one thing we think is very important,” said Scafa. “Children have potential to influence older generations if they have the resources to do so.”
The plan was a response to BRING research that indicated that 19% of the total waste stream by weight and volume in Lane County, Oregon (where the city of Eugene is located), is food. Furthermore, up to 40% of food in the United States that is grown or imported for consumption is never eaten.
Visiting a community garden would help children realise the effort that goes into producing food, as well as encourage them to eat fresh food.
The educational effort would start with one local elementary school and would involve children aged 10-11 (called ‘fifth graders’ in North America), who would in turn share this information and excitement about avoiding food waste with six- to seven-year-olds (first graders).
As for the public health section, judges representing the HIV Alliance group included Jade Lazaris, Leland Hilarides and Mary Wasson. They chose the solution presented by ‘public health group one’ among the groups which were tasked with reducing the rates of new HIV infections in rural communities in Oregon.
This team focused primarily on influencing males due to research which shows that 88.12% of HIV in Oregon affects males who engage in sexual contact with other males.
Rural residents often view HIV testing negatively, so one challenge was to remove this stigma while also providing access to information and testing for as many people as possible.
Dai Wei Huang (National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan), Rosie Lee (University of Auckland), Seaun Ryu (Korea University, South Korea), Jessica O’Neill (University of Oregon) and Colman Murphey (UO resource student) proposed an initiative to provide a free health-testing booth at highly attended community events, such as Oregon’s Crook County Fair and the Pendleton Round-Up, a nationally known annual rodeo.
The affordable solution presented by this group would train partners already providing public health services to rural communities in providing discreet HIV testing and education.
The booth would offer some sort of incentive to the public to increase their interest in general health testing, including blood pressure and cholesterol, with an option for HIV, rather than a booth with a prominent HIV-related logo singling out HIV testing.
Two local public health partners already have a booth at the Crook County Fair but have not previously offered any health testing at the fair. “One in 13 people are unaware of their HIV status,” said O’Neill. “That’s a relatively large number and we felt that ambushing these communities with sensitive info was not the best way to increase testing.”
Given that the cost of this testing effort would be just US$1,800 for equipment and training, estimated at US$1.80 per test, and that it would use booth infrastructure and staff that was already in place, Hilarides welcomed this effort as one that his organisation could undertake right away.
Regarding the idea on the promotion of social equality, Lane Education Service District (LESD), an organisation that provides resources to Lane County, Oregon’s school districts, provided judges Kate Stoysich, from the Duck Nest Wellness Center (a holistic and alternative health centre), and Kendaris Hill, multicultural academic advisor and black/African American student retention specialist – both UO faculty.
They chose ‘social inequality group three’ as their winning solution, addressing unequal access to education.
Christal Juarez (University of California, Davis), Maria Gunji (Osaka University, Japan), Celine Koh (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), Phoebe Yang (University of Sydney, Australia) and Mohammed Zaidan (UO resource student) researched redefining family involvement in schools.
A 2017 study in Oregon quoted by participants identified a large disparity in academic outcomes for black students in the state versus their white counterparts.
Studies comparing the families of white and black students revealed lower attendance by black pupils at elementary school events and fundraisers, even though many non-white families support academic success at home.
Redefining parental involvement
This solution involved providing an annual three-day workshop to train teachers to redefine parental involvement and recognise that while many families of colour are providing academic support to their children, this is not in ways that are always evident to school leaders, for instance visiting zoos or aquariums, or checking out books from libraries.
One workshop would evaluate what parental involvement means and how to identify gaps in parental involvement.
Workshop two would empower teachers to create a welcoming and comfortable environment for all parents and provide special training on supporting parents who may have had previous negative experiences with school authorities.
Workshop three would equip teachers with tools for successfully communicating with all parents, including ones who cannot attend school functions due to other responsibilities such as working multiple jobs.
To that end, this proposal suggests using an app called ClassDojo along with a teacher chatbot and daily updates on homework and quizzes.
Training workshops run by LESD would commence in July during summer holidays, then be followed by an August technology set-up session and an introduction to ClassDojo for parents, followed by an end-of-first-semester evaluation. At the end of the year, students and parents would receive a pamphlet with tips on continuing to support education through the summer.
This group estimated the pilot programme would reach 25 teachers and 521 students at Holt Elementary, a Lane County school with a high population of students of colour.
Most valuable experience
Maria Arteaga, a fourth-year managerial economics student from University of California, Davis, said working with students from around the world who were also passionate about their subjects was the most valuable experience she took from this programme.
“We’re so passionate over so many different issues that in our home countries may be very different logistically but that also are more general, just like these three topics we faced here,” she said.
“The most meaningful part of the workshops was being able to interact with other students. Even if there was a workshop I had done already, being able to learn from so many different students’ perspective was really valuable.”
William Johnson, assistant vice provost for operations and innovations in the UO’s division of global engagement, praised the international group of 52 participating undergraduates for working hard and cooperating with people of “many different skills and backgrounds”. Johnson told University World News how impressed he was by the students’ professionalism.