My first experience with Ecuador was in the winter of 2017. That was when I traveled there with Science, Technology and Society (STS) Assistant Director Matt Aruch and 16 other University of Maryland (UMD) students as a part of the STS-led short-term study abroad course, “Education, Technology and Society: Ecuador in Context.” I had originally found out about this opportunity during Admitted Students Open House when I was a senior in high school, and it had served as one of the many reasons I decided to join STS. I knew that I wanted to visit a Spanish-speaking country to sharpen my six years of school-acquired Spanish language and to experience the natural beauty of South America in an authentic and memorable way.
During our three weeks in Ecuador, I met many wonderful students at the University of Cuenca. I continued to keep in touch with them after the course was over, practicing my Spanish and reminiscing about the experience.
And so, when I found out about College Park Scholars’ first-ever global classrooms course, I was thrilled. The course—“International Perspectives on Emerging Science and Technology”—offered a blended classroom experience where 11 students from UMD would meet twice a week and participate in online conferences with 11 undergraduate engineering students from the University of Cuenca. The class was an STS capstone course, which fulfilled Scholars program requirements. It provided the added opportunity of hearing how STS concepts apply to the societal frameworks, technologies and research specific to Ecuador.
Knowing that I could learn alongside students from the University of Cuenca in a non-conventional classroom setting… I couldn’t pass it up!
Semester-long investigative project
We began the semester by examining principles and theories key to science, technology and society studies. Matt Aruch led the instruction from this side of the world; we met virtually with Dr. Francisco Flores, the instructor on the Cuenca side, and his students through video conference. Normally we would discuss homework topics in groups within our university, then connect via the video-chatting platform, which allowed the simultaneous sharing of screens and projecting of PowerPoints.
Discussions covered technological fixes, governance, moral foundations, the distinctions between expertise vs. layperson knowledge, and understudied or underfunded areas of science and tech. We talked about the challenges of reproducing scientific results and how social values can influence scientific discoveries. We covered technology in the home and the workplace. And we compared findings from our lives to the experiences of our Ecuadorean counterparts.
The main focus of the course involved a semester-long investigative project. Each UMD student was paired with a University of Cuenca partner based on similar interests. Christian Picon is a 23-year-old Ecuadorean student studying civil engineering. He and I shared an affinity for languages, translation and automation, so we were matched for the project. We decided to propose a model for an artificial intelligence (AI) language-learning application. We would explore this idea through a social lens, by looking at what cultural aspects of a language would need to be considered and integrated to create such a system.
Christian and I collaborated online to move our project forward—communicating via text, video conferencing and cloud sharing. The language barrier was not really an issue for us; all of the University of Cuenca students in the class had studied English formally for more than five years. Christian and I were also able to code-switch—that is, use two languages simultaneously—over Messenger.
Through weeks of joint effort, we came up with the theoretical methods of gathering relevant language data en masse. We identified the possibilities and limitations of machine intelligence and learning. We also delved into the social implications of designing and distributing a language-learning AI system.
In the end, we designed a project that incorporated a balanced view on the proposed technology and its potential power, usage and influence.
Our class had no shortage of interesting research topics. Our classmates explored the implications of biomaterials, federal regulation of psychedelic drugs in health care, Internet Service Providers and net neutrality, human-saving robots in natural disasters and more. Groups presented their ideas in class, allowing classmates on both sides of the screen to constructively critique one another’s reasoning, data, sources, design, implementation and analysis.
Irony of technology issues
Ironically, our global classrooms course on technology in society included some issues related to… technology. Video calling and microphone issues meant that it wasn’t always easy to see or hear our collaborators on the other side of the world through the screen. Students needed to speak up—as in physically speak louder, not even from a metaphorical standpoint. We often strained to hear our classmates talking from Ecuador. (They faced the same challenges). All of us put in time outside of class to carefully plan with our partners. Just as I had stepped outside my comfort zone when I first visited Ecuador, we all had to do it in the course to learn in this new environment.
As of this writing, we are in the final stages of finishing our projects. We are just days away from the Scholars Academic Showcase, where 11 of us UMD students, together with our 11 University of Cuenca classmates, will present the final products of our semester-long investigations.
Though we worked remotely throughout the course, this time, we will all be together: The University of Cuenca students are traveling to the United States for Showcase and will be on campus with us to present our joint projects. Soon, we will finally meet one another for the first time!
We on the UMD side are excited to show our Ecuadorean classmates around the campus, local area and tourist attraction sites—just like their classmates showed off Cuenca to me and other UMD students in January 2017.
The technological opportunities that allowed us to meet virtually and work together paved the way for this moment. Now, we will demonstrate our shared acquired knowledge and amalgamation of perspectives at Showcase, the culmination of our Scholars experience.
This visit and unique experience will serve as a reminder to everyone involved that—just like our studies in science, technology and society dictate—science and tech can have no bearing without society, and vice versa.
This blog post is the first of a two-part series, "The International Classroom." The second post discusses the Scholars global classrooms course from the perspective of the University of Cuenca instructor, Francisco Xavier Flores Solano.
About the author:
Veronica Yevsukov is a sophomore in the Science, Technology and Society Scholars program and is a member of the Scholars Student Advisory Board. She is completing a double degree in neurobiology and Russian. She has studied six languages and will continue to investigate linguistics in UMD’s PULSAR Language science program.