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A World of Learning

Problems Without Passports shows undergraduate researchers that big issues transcend national borders.


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A World of Learning

Problems Without Passports shows undergraduate researchers that big issues transcend national borders.

Video by Mira Zimet

The office of the U.S. secretary of state... A cave in southern Belize... A health clinic in central Mexico...

This summer, learning at USC College soared beyond the classroom to some surprising places. Undergraduates in three field-research courses took flight - in the College's new Problems Without Passports program.

The brainchildren of Steve Lamy, vice dean for academic programs, these three courses gave students the opportunity to travel and gain firsthand, feet-on-the-ground experience investigating issues with international scope.

“We are facing a world today with problems that transcend boundaries,” Lamy said. “Problems like pandemics and climate change belong to the global community.”

And so special summer classes in international relations and environmental studies challenged students to explore arms nonproliferation, the end of ancient Maya civilization and remittances sent home by migrant workers.

Problems Without Passports adapts for the sciences and humanities an instructional method originally deployed in medical schools. In problem-based learning, teams of students examine a particular scenario — be it an emergency patient with a gunshot wound or a complicated policy dilemma — then consult with experts in search of the best solutions.

“It’s active learning,” noted Lamy, professor of international relations in USC College, “so students are involved in the process of discovery. It takes away from that notion of the ‘sage on the stage.’ ”

After a successful summer 2008, Problems Without Passports offerings may increase to as many as 15 courses next year.

From the Beltway …

The Problems Without Passports prototype course, now in its fifth year, brings students to Washington, D.C., to investigate U.S. efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Rave reviews from students helped build the momentum that makes it now the cornerstone of this College-wide program.

Wayne Glass, professor of the practice in international relations, remembers when Lamy first suggested the idea. A classmate of Lamy’s from graduate school, Glass had come to teach at USC after a distinguished career as a policy analyst for the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress.

The 2008 summer session of IR 445, “U.S. Defense and Foreign Policy: Nonproliferation and Weapons of Mass Destruction,” began with a week of on-campus study. Glass familiarized his students with the issues and vocabulary of the Beltway.

After that, it was off to the nation’s capital, where the dozen undergraduates were given a tour of the insider’s Washington. In four weeks they attended approximately 50 briefings. Thanks to Glass’ connections, the students interviewed experts from the nongovernmental organizations who influence policy, and officials of the executive and legislative branches who make policy.

Wolfgang Klotz, an international relations major who began his senior year this fall, said of the experience: “It’s almost unbelievable the things we were able to get done, the people we were able to meet and the things we were able to see. You don’t get chances like that.”

Among face-to-face meetings with movers and shakers from an alphabet soup of offices (CIA, DOD, DOE, DHS, DTRA — you get the idea), the highlight was the class’s 45-minute audience with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a friend of Glass’.

In addition to giving a top-level perspective on defense diplomacy, Rice bestowed some valuable advice upon the visiting Trojans.

“One of the questions they asked of Condi was ‘What is the secret to success?’” Glass said. “And her answer, to my delight, was ‘It’s all about balance.’ Life in the policy world is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

After the month in D.C., the class returned to USC for a week of wrap-up. Students collaborated in groups of three or four, synthesizing the information they collected into a paper addressing a nonproliferation problem that most interested them.

The final-assignment format was another unique feature of the course. Glass asked his students to prepare five-page “option papers” with analyses that succinctly lay out a problem, identify goals, weigh the pros and cons of potential actions, and conclude by suggesting the best solution. They also presented professional briefings based on the option papers to Glass and their classmates. Such papers and presentations are the common coin of the policy world.

“We were looking at official government documents,” Klotz said, “and they are structured just about the same way. It made me really appreciate that this was not just a good assignment, it’s a useful skill.”

Glass identified preparing students for a policy career as one of his goals — introducing them to the right people and showing them how policy is created. In fact, some College alumni who traveled to D.C. through IR 445 are now beginning their policy careers in Washington.

But Glass also has a broader aim in mind: to develop informed citizens and nuanced thinkers.

“I show them a process, and then they begin to understand that what appeared to be a black-and-white issue is really painted in shades of gray,” he said.

Some of the students couldn’t have participated in the trip if not for supplemental funding from USC College. For instance, Klotz received support from the College’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF).

“SURF is a gift that came to me out of the blue,” he said. “They came through in a huge way, covering almost the entire cost of tuition for the trip.”

… to Belize …

The environmental studies class traveling to Belize turned students into aspiring scientific detectives.

They studied a millennium-old mystery: the fall of the Maya Empire, which may have been precipitated by some sort of environmental catastrophe. The key to that puzzle, in turn, has implications for addressing climatic changes predicted for the not-too-distant future.

The eight students in the summer session of ENST 499, “Role of the Environment in the Collapse of Human Societies: The Ancient Maya Civilization,” spent six days at an archaeological site not far from Punta Gorda, the southernmost town in Belize. They were accompanied by James Haw, director of USC College’s environmental studies program, and Kevin Cannariato, lecturer in environmental studies.

The students and faculty were embedded with the Uxbenká Archaeological Project, a National Science Foundation-funded research project of which Cannariato is a member. The interdisciplinary operation also includes archaeologists and anthropologists from the University of New Mexico and the University of Oregon. Heading to Belize the day after commencement in hopes of missing Belize’s wet season, the class lived and worked alongside scientists and graduate students. They received a firsthand view of the wonders, and rigors, of scientific fieldwork.

“We were looking at classic Maya ruins in the raw,” said Haw, holder of USC College’s Ray R. Irani Chairman of Occidental Petroleum Chair in Chemistry. “The conditions were very primitive. We would go on a fairly brutal uphill hike once or twice a day to get to the sites or to some of the caves we looked at.”

Recalling one of the trip’s highlights, Tiffany Pereira, a sophomore environmental studies major, said, “It was just beautiful to go through the caves. The Maya used them for religious and cultural purposes. To be there, knowing they were there so many thousands of years ago, there was just a sense of awe.”

Cannariato, the course’s instructor, had a particular interest in these caves. A paleoclimatologist who reconstructs information about ancient climate by looking at the composition of cave formations, he gathered stalagmite samples to analyze back at his lab.

The rainfall record within rock will likely be key to revealing why Maya civilization disappeared. Recent literature in the field suggests that a series of droughts occurred around the time of the culture’s

Cannariato credits his own undergraduate fieldwork with helping determine his career direction, and he hopes to pass this on to his students. But, he added, the course offers important messages for any student.

“The take-home lesson is relevant to future societies,” Cannariato said, noting that current projections bespeak extreme changes in rainfall throughout the world — drastic increases in some locales, decreases in others.

“All humans on earth are going to have to deal with these future climate problems,” he said, “and understanding them at a deeper level will have great importance for our society, in terms of deciding how we’re going to deal with these problems.”

Haw echoed this sentiment, adding that the interdisciplinary perspective of environmental
studies is an essential tool.

“If you look at the collapse of an ancient civilization in the context of similar challenges that face our society today, you very quickly realize that you can’t approach it from any sort of narrow disciplinary perspective,” Haw said. “And some of our analogous problems are probably a lot more complex and subtle.”

The Trojan travelers followed up their time at Punta Gorda with a weekend beachside in Belize for rest and recuperation, then returned to USC for a three-week classroom course closely examining relevant journal articles.

For their final projects, students were asked to prepare mock proposals to the National Science Foundation, referencing the scientific literature and articulating future
directions of study.

“I was pretty amazed how in-depth they went to pull out supporting articles and to make specific hypotheses about the collapse,” Cannariato said.

Pereira, whose participation was also made possible by a SURF grant, said she couldn’t imagine the course without a travel component.

“It’s not something you can do sitting in a classroom or laboratory,” she said. “You have to go there and see the greater context.”

… to Zacatecas

A total of approximately $24 billion is sent annually from the U.S. to Mexico by workers with families south of the border. The third Problems Without Passports course focused on how this money could be best used to promote economic development.

Pamela Starr, senior lecturer in international relations, led her six students through two weeks of intensive on-campus study, after which they hit the road to Mexico. As a team, the students interviewed government officials in the country’s capital, Mexico City, and in Zacatecas, one of Mexico’s oldest migrant-sending states.

Most of the interviews were conducted in Spanish, requiring some group members to brush up. The pressure to represent themselves and their school well was not lost upon the class either.

“Preparing for the interviews was nerve-racking,” said Carlos Navarro, a double-major in international relations and communication who graduates this December. “But at the same time, when we completed the interviews, we felt very accomplished.”

The aim of IR 337, “The Impact of Remittances on Development: A Critical Case Study on Mexico,” was to create a set of policy recommendations that could maximize the impact of remittances in Mexico.

“Most of what we studied in Zacatecas was related to collective remittances, money that clubs in the U.S. raise to invest in their hometowns,” said Starr, an expert in Mexican politics, economy and foreign policy who serves as senior fellow at the USC Center for Public Diplomacy, a collaboration between USC College and the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

Although collective donations make up less than 1 percent of all remittances, they are more susceptible to influence by public policy, in part because the government’s Tres por  Uno program augments support from hometown clubs with public funds.

Jeanette Acosta (B.A., political science, ’08) said that since remittances are a transnational issue, “it’s only fitting that it is a binational course.”

“The nature of the subject almost requires that sort of study,” she continued, “so I think it’s amazing that we’re able to do it. A big highlight was actually getting to see the projects that we were studying.”

The class visited some of the community projects, such as clinics, parks and schools, funded using money pooled by residents working abroad.

Together the students prepared a set of recommendations, which they first presented to a panel of three professors at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas.

“These are people who’ve been studying these issues for 20 or 30 years,” Starr said, “and they were quite impressed by how much our undergraduates had learned in just four weeks. They really caught many of the nuances of the subject.”

“I learned a lot more in this class then I ever could have in a regular class,” said Jenelle Thomson, an international relations major who graduated in August.

What’s more, the experience built new friendships. The students testified to a personal synergy that grew during the four weeks of the course.

“It’s a synergy that developed through the process of the course,” Starr said. “It looked to me as if that was one of the very valued experiences for the whole group — and something they could not have gotten out of a typical classroom course.”