Experiential Learning in Action

Cultural Immersion Model

Students extend their classroom knowledge through continuous and substantial immersion in a target environment with structured reflection. These experiences provide opportunities for the synthesis of theory and practice by offering students the chance to perform the curriculum in the field. 

It’s hard to imagine college students waking up at 4:00 a.m. to do anything, let alone to crawl through a dark, humid tropical rain forest, but students participating in the short-term study abroad course in Costa Rica in May 2007 did just that. The nine-day trip topped off a semester-long study of biodiversity and tropical ecology. Susan Allen-Gil, associate professor of biology, developed the program with the goal of providing students with intensive study in tropical ecology and the opportunity to spend time immersed in a foreign culture. “International education opportunities are vital to academic and personal development,” Allen-Gil says. “This course is an incredible opportunity to learn information in a very applied and real way.” 

Classroom preparation is a critical part of the immersion experience, so that students can take what they’ve learned and then practice it in a real-world setting. During the semester, each student in the course becomes the class expert on a different topic, including birds, plant diversity, or water management; then, when they arrive in the rain forest, each “expert” takes turns leading the others through the tropical landscape, identifying dozens of species at a time and observing the importance of interconnectivity and biodiversity. Allen-Gil is enthusiastic about the “immersion” model of experiential learning, describing how her students “hardly notice that they’re learning,” and yet “they can’t help but come back and reflect on the American lifestyle in new and critical ways.”