A Bridge to Belize – Experiential Learning


Tricia Sindel-Arrington, Ph.D.

A Bridge to Belize – Almost as Good as a Magic School Bus
John Dewey has been noted as saying, “There is a need of forming a theory of experience in order that education may be intelligently conducted upon the basis of experience.” Recent efforts to improve higher education have focused on improving the learning process in education through the application of research. One focus of the current research is the concept of experiential learning. Experiential learning is often misunderstood as a set of tools and techniques to provide learners with experiences from which they can learn. Others have used the term to describe learning as a mindless recording of experience. Yet experiential learning is above all a philosophy of education based upon what Dewey called a “theory of experience,” (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). He argued that while traditional education had little need for theory since practice was determined by tradition, the new experiential approach to education needed a sound theory of experience to guide its conduct. Experiential learning draws on the work of 20th century scholars, such as, Dewey, Lewin, Jung, Piaget, James, Rogers, etc., who gave experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development.
According to Kolb and Kolb (2005), the theory is built upon six propositions: 1. Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes; 2. All learning is relearning; 3. Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world; 4. Learning is a holistically process of adaptation to the world; 5. Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment; 6. Learning is the process of creating knowledge. Therefore, experiential learning theory defines learning as the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Kolb and Kolb (2005) noted that knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience. This process of learning can be portrayed through an idealized learning cycle where learners experience, reflect, think and act in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned.
The enhancement of learning in higher education can be achieved through the creation of learning spaces that promote growth-producing experiences for learners. According to Dewey, the central problem of an education based on experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences. To learn experientially, learners must first own and value their own experience (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). Therefore, the effective teacher builds on the exploration of what students already know and believe. Beginning with these or related concrete experiences allows the learner to re-examine and modify their previous sense making in light of the new ideas.
To learn also requires facing and embracing differences. These differences can be challenging and threatening, requiring a learning space that encourages the expression of differences and the safety to support the learner in facing these new challenges. People grow best where they experience a blend of challenge and support.
One interesting view of experiential learning is what Wassermann (1992) calls “serious play.” She describes serious play as creative and inventive activities that promote autonomy and a spirit of adventure, and that achieve mental engagement through active involvement with the physical world. Serious play is built on experience, and is inextricably linked to it. Wassermann believes that learners of all ages create meaning through serious play (Harkins, 2000). The goal of education is to prepare students for the future. A curriculum that places its greatest emphasis on abstract paper and pencil tasks will not provide them an adequate preparation. What students need is to develop work-readiness skills through the integration of knowledge acquisition and its practical application, a process that should start in the early grades. An education that will effectively prepare young people for future careers is one that connects the world of childhood play and the adult workplace within the context of experiential learning. Experiential tasks build higher-order thought patterns by providing data for knowledge assimilation and the accommodation of cognitive structures.
The Bridge to Belize study abroad program embodies the essential elements necessary for students to have a rich learning experience. The program is a perfect example of experiential learning. Commonly, most college classes task students to work in isolation, often completing assignments that have little relation to their daily lives and pursuing academic disciplines that are ends unto themselves. Most professors only ask their students to regurgitate information from an expensive text instead of making their course alive and rich with experience opportunities. In the Bridge to Belize, novels and academic articles were used as a springboard for learning. Students were asked not only to understand and dissect the reading, but to analyze, reflect, and discuss with teams of classmates. Safe, conversational spaces were created throughout the course where students could benefit enormously. Students were more engaged, became far better prepared, and learned significantly more because they shared not only their ideas, but also listened and connected with others throughout multiple spaces created for reflection. Students were asked to engage through Facebook, Skype, bus rides, and outdoor meeting spaces as a means of conversational safe places where each person had an opportunity to share and feel validated.
Important terms and key concepts were learned through reading, discussion, experiences, observations, and travel. In a traditional class, students read a boring text filled with vocabulary (pertinent concepts and terms necessary to learn the curriculum). Usually, they are then tasked with memorizing the terms in order to answer multiple choice test questions. Unfortunately, a week later, the students will have most likely forgotten the terms entirely because no meaning was ever made with the terms. The students were learning in isolation without the means of experiencing the concepts. They did not have the opportunity to connect the class concepts with real life or to make connections with other subjects or experiences. Dr. James Gee notes that students must first “play the game,” then they can make sense of the vocabulary or concepts associated with the textbook (2007). In order for the students in the Bridge to Belize course to make meaning they had to “play the game.” The group traveled to Belize whereupon they were immersed in the culture and landscape. Activities which showcased the different ecosystems, culture, and history of the country further helped students to experience everything they had read and discussed before leaving for Belize. Afterwards, not only did the students have a thorough understanding of the concepts, but they were able to apply the ideas to their own lives. Learners were able to transfer the interpreted experiences and explanations of other people, including both peers and experts in the field. This social interaction, as well as, mentoring from more advanced learners was important. The debriefing further continued their meaning making. Students were constantly challenged to think and rethink their previous and new beliefs.
Team building was acutely important for students to make meaning of their learning while experiencing Belize. The course required students to work in teams, whereupon they were necessitated to apply their newfound knowledge in learning tasks, which either required students to teach the entire class or to conduct an actual evaluation of the conservation and sustainability of their lodging. These types of student learning teams have proven to be highly effectively. For example, in a study of student learning at Harvard, Richard Light (2001) found specifically that students, who work outside of class in small groups of four to six, even just once a week, benefit enormously. When meetings are organized around discussions of the curriculum, as a result those students are far more engaged, far better prepared, and learn significantly more (Kayes, Kayes, & Kolb, 2005).
The Bridge to Belize course serves as a real-life model of a successful experiential learning course. Not only did it encompass the required elements needed to create a positive learning experience for students, but it further validates that educators need to rethink their lecture formatted courses where a textbook serves as the hallmark of the class. If the goal of a college education is to create well-rounded, open minded critical thinkers who are prepared to work with teams in the workplace, then more experiential learning courses should be constructed.

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A Bridge to Belize 2014



As the Experiential Learning Program Manager at the University of Baltimore, I sometimes find myself thinking how odd it is that I now spend most of my days wearing a button down shirt, dress pants, and sometimes a tie and/or jacket in order to work in an office and attend meetings. It is a far cry from my days of wearing short pants, boots, and a t-shirt and taking students out to the Chandler Gilbert Community College Environmental Technology Center to learn about sustainability and environmental ethics. I think that is why this year the Bridge to Belize study abroad tended to take on more of a personal meaning. I felt back at home working with my Belizean friends to teach students about sustainability and cultural diversity by exploring caves, climbing ruins, visiting gardens and snorkeling coral reefs. It was exciting to watch University of Baltimore students experiencing a number of firsts while studying in Belize. A first trip to Central America, horseback ride through the rainforest, snorkeling at Laughing Bird Caye, and so on. Opportunities that served as prefect trigger mechanisms to better understand the theoretical concepts such as being a responsible traveller, respecting other cultures and the importance of ecological preservation. I have written qualitative research papers demonstrating the transformational process of experiential learning, although the actual experience of observing students getting excited about active learning is so much more rewarding. It was nice getting out of the office…


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A Bridge to Belize 2014 – Mountain Equestrian Trails


A Bridge to Belize 2014 – Mountain Equestrian Trails

Horse Back Riding and Biological Diversity

Horse back riding is just as much as a rite of passage in Belize as a teenager learning how to drive in the US. Though horse back riding in the States consist of jumping on the back of a horse and going around a man made forest in circles, Belize’s definition of riding a horse consists of maneuvering a huge creature through jungle terrain. Seeing as I have never rode a horse in my life, I was terrified of engaging in this experience. Their large size and massive leg power have always intimidated me. When I got onto Sota (my horse), he instantly felt my tense nature and proceeded to show me that he was expert. I literally was riding Sota as he gently walked and trotted with pride. One of the many ways that this riding lesson differed than the typical US horseback riding sessions is that we had to guide our horses up and down hills. The trails were not well defined, pretty much covered in both poisonous, as well as medicinal plants. The biological diversity between the plants and animals that call the forest their home is evidently visible. Everything in the forest works together in order to get what it needs. For instance, our guide was telling us about a symbiotic relationship between a special kind of ant and plant. This plant provides the ant with shelter and food and in turn, the ant will sacrifice its life in order to protect the plant from predators. This symbiotic relationship should not only apply to plant and animal relationships but to human interactions. The more we help each other out the more we get out of life.

Tkeyah Lake

2014 Graduate

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A Bridge to Belize 2014


A Bridge to Belize 2014 - Actun Tunichil Muknal

“Make sure you have no cameras or anything else that would hinder you from using your hands today,” the tour guide told us. Reflecting on the day I am really glad I didn’t even carry a water bottle because boy did I need my hands! After a 1.4 mile jungle hike with three rivers along the way we got to the real adventure… the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal. From the moment you strap the flashlight to your helmet the “real” adventure begun.

Our tour guide Emil was not only a native Belizean, but a walking encyclopedia of Mayan and archeological knowledge. He guided the group through some of the smallest and amazing crevasses of the cave with ease and grace as he explained the rich history every inch of the way. What was interesting about the tour was that as we rose up to higher levels of the cave we were beginning to gain a deeper understanding of the Mayans ideology behind their practices. As in most ancient Mezzo-American societies the Mayans believed in many different gods. Based on archeological evidence it is believed that the higher up in the cave one would go the closer they thought to be to their gods.

I believe that being able to go and experience and climb and explore in the pitch-black cave as the Mayans did was very eye opening and really allowed me to be fully immersed in the culture. As I now constantly strive to be less ethnocentric it was important for me to put the practices of the Maya people in the cave into another perspective; in relation to my religion now and where I would go to worship my God. Seeing the pottery and the skeletal remains of past sacrifices performed by Mayans and listening as Emil shed some light on the different theories of their collapse allowed for an experience mentally I can never forget.

Taylor Peck

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Belize 2014

Belize 2014

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Belize 2014 A New UB Adventure

Belize 2014
A New UB Adventure

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Who Cares?


A recent Gallup-Purdue University study on undergraduate experiential and deep learning had a number that really jumped out at me.

My professors at [College] cared about me as a person. – Strongly agree – 27%

This morning I read Dr. Sam Brown’s recent article in the Chronicle on “Why Professors Should Give a Damn.” Almost more interesting are the sometime heated comments in response to this article from professors across the country. Some agree that compassion is needed in the classroom and that students deserve to be treated with care while others firmly believe that students need to be held accountable and that they are doing their students a service be holding fast to deadlines and not taking excuses.

A Faculty Focus article also recently addressed this topic. Dr. John Orlando wrote ‘Students will never say, “I missed the exam because I was out late last night—it was one dollar taps at the Silver Horse, you know how it goes.” As a result, teachers must have a policy for handling these situations, which invariably involves a decision on trust.’

As I think about what changes I might make for next semester, one of the most intriguing suggestions came from a response to Orland’s article. Lee Jordan-Anders, a Professor of Music and Artist-in-Residence at Virginia Wesleyan College, commented by sharing how she structures her grades…

Long ago I stopped trying to play God in the classroom and decide which excuses were valid. Instead I offer “alternative points.” All students may elect to take advantage of a varied shopping list of opportunities to earn points. Who’s to say that taking a 4-chapter in-class test represents a better gauge of what a student has learned than an in-depth research project on one of the topics within a chapter, completed outside of class? Students are also permitted (encouraged!) to design their own creative alternative projects, and many of them have surpassed any kind of learning experience that I could have designed for them. Students simply earn points–it’s not important if they earn them in the class (clearly the easier ones to earn) or out. Sometimes students have difficultly grasping the concept that they take responsibility for earning the points necessary for the grade they hope for. But the numbers don’t lie. It’s a great system that not only gets me out of the judgment business but teaches students something about personal accountability and responsibility.

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Join Us for an Innovative Experiment in Higher Education


Join us on May 6 to glimpse a promising experiment for the future of higher education.

Singer, actor, and human rights activist Harry Belafonte will be the featured guest in the University of Baltimore’s pilot online course, Citizenship & Freedom: The Civil Rights Era, taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch and associate instructor Dr. Jelani Favors.

To experience the Belafonte/Branch seminar live, click here during class hours between 5:30 and 8:00 p.m. EDT next Tuesday, May 6, 2014. 

The course is novel in both content and structure.  Branch uses civil rights history to teach democratic citizenship.  His weekly seminars engage modern students with historic arguments, triumphs, and mistakes made by activists roughly their age.  Veterans of the civil rights era illustrate the historical record with personal memories and criticism.  Guests this semester have included Dr. King’s seminary classmate Marcus Wood, Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette, SNCC organizers Dorie Ladner,  Bob Moses and Betty Robinson, NAACP leader Julian Bond, and, for the semester’s final class, Harry Belafonte.

The course structure aims to refine online technology for expanded access while preserving academic fairness and integrity.  It opens possibilities beyond the apply-and-attend path limited to the courses offered at a single school.  Students and those interested in this crucial time in our history can enroll through other institutions or on their own, potentially from anywhere, for academic credit or for continuing education.

This spring, in-class students from the University of Baltimore have shared class content and discussion with other Maryland institutions, a pilot class at Louisiana State University, and individual students across the US.  The course is not a MOOC.  It is not free.  The goal is to achieve sustainable economies for affordable, seminar-style learning.

There is detailed information on the course website, www.freedomclass.org, but the best way to evaluate this model is to take a peek for yourself.  The May 6 class will be open to visitors for free. We encourage you to circulate this invitation.

Again, to participate in the seminar between 5:30 and 8:00 p.m. EDT, Tuesday, May 6th:

If class time is inconvenient for viewing as it happens, an archived video will be available afterward for two weeks.  The archived content will be accessible via the freedomclass.org website by Wednesday afternoon, May 7.

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Naivety of the Digital Native


The “Digital Native” paradigm has been circulating for the better part of a decade in higher education.  This concept that people are growing up using computer technology as a part of daily life can lead educators and administrators alike to create unrealistic estimations of the digital literacy of incoming students.  Assumptions and anecdotes classifying the “typical” college student’s digital literacy do a disservice to Higher Education, creating an over-generalized archetype for a broadly diverse community of learners.

In Megan O’Neil’s latest blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Confronting the Myth of the Digital Native, she interviewed Eszter Hargittai, a Sociologist and Management professor from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management regarding the myth of the digital native.  Ms. Hargittai has conducted years of research on millenials and their online skills.  “It is problematic that there are so many assumptions about how just because a young person grew up with digital media, which in fact many have, that they are automatically savvy,” Ms. Hargittai says.  “That is simply not the case.  There are increasing amounts of empirical evidence to suggest the contrary.”  For this very reason, Northwestern and others have put together curriculum to help students manage their online reputations.  While activities like tweeting, posting on Facebook, and pinning party photos on Pinterest might seem like technology magic to some baby boomers, the research conducted by Hargiatti and others is revealing student naivety with respect to fundamental understanding of identity security, understanding of the internet and its accessibility, and even understanding of the security settings offered by many social media programs.

This misunderstanding of the digital literacy and computer abilities of students creates an opportunity for academic institutions to fill these knowledge gaps through infusion of focused content in areas like identity management and internet security.  These lessons could logically compliment courses across a liberal arts curriculum, from classes in Sociology and History to classes in Anthropology and Biology.  For those of us working at the University of Baltimore, I challenge you to think of new and innovative ways to create natives out of the naïve.

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10 Questions from The League for Innovation in the Community College


Beyond the standard professional vitae, have you ever wondered what books leaders in higher education are reading? Or, more personally, who had the greatest impact in their life achievements? Tune in to 10 Questions to Leadership and preview these professional, candid, and intriguing responses from leaders in a variety of roles.

Ten Questions to Darien Ripple, Experiential Learning Program Manager, University of Baltimore

Darien Ripple is the new Experiential Learning Program Manager at the University of Baltimore (UB). Prior to accepting his position at UB in the spring of 2014, he was at Chandler-Gilbert Community College serving as a philosophy faculty member, coordinator of the Sustainability and Ecological Literacy program, and Director of the Environmental Technology Center. Ripple earned a Ph.D. in sustainability education writing his dissertation on the relationship of international education to transformational learning and environmental sustainability. He has received a variety of scholarly grants, including a Fulbright Scholarship to study globalization in Mexico and Belize, a Perkin’s Work Place grant studying ground water contamination, and a Maricopa Institute for Learning Fellowship.

1. What obstacles does the ‘next gen’ face in environmentalism and ecology beyond the baby boomer age?

When I teach Environmental Ethics, I inform my students that they are now living on a planet that is attempting to support a human population of over seven billion people. Their world is vastly different than the post World War II Earth that the Baby Boomer generation inherited, with just two billion people. By 2025, the population will most likely be around eight billion, with eighty percent living in the poorest countries. So, there are many obstacles if developed nations like the United States want to continue living a lifestyle that cannot be supported by a finite planet.

2. How do you define your work in “confronting environmental nihilism in higher education”?

My research in sustainability education focuses on trends in society that have created a generation of learners that is alienated from a direct relationship with nature. I normally refer to environmental nihilism as an existential isolation from nature and others that is associated with modernity. I argue that if we want college students to understand sustainability, it is imperative that institutions of higher learning go beyond the passive learning practices of lecture-based education. We instead need to engage students in learning activities that provide connections with their local eco-systems. This can be achieved by collaborative learning projects that are problem-based inquiries confronting such topics of species extinction, local energy use, and ecological literacy.

3. How can faculty, staff, and administrators support learners in gaining a new appreciation and participating in service work for environmental development and sustainability?

I think experiential learning is the key to having students transform in their understanding of environmental sustainability. Colleges and universities need to create centers of learning that focus on real problems associated with the formation of sustainable societies. Students should be encouraged to question the accepted paradigm of growth. And, faculty ought to focus on learning assignments that critically question the missions and objectives of universities and local communities.

4. What data can you share that support program development for colleges to initiate innovative and proven environmental projects?

I had the good fortune to serve as a Maricopa Institute for Learning Fellow, which allowed me the opportunity to engage in research focused on applied experiential learning practices in my Environmental Ethics courses. My fellowship research was published in the spring 2013 issue of the Journal of Sustainability Education (JSE), and titled, Sustainability Education and Environmental Nihilism: Transforming Suburbia through Experiential Learning. I mention this article because the main focus was not on grades and retention, but that I discovered that changing my method of instruction, taking a more enhanced approach to experiential learning, yielded a considerable improvement in comparison to the previous year. In the fall of 2010, there was a retention rate of 66 percent, with 56 percent of students earning a grade of C or better, of which 36 percent received an A. In comparison, in fall 2011, the retention rate was 94 percent, with 86 percent of students earning a grade of C or better, and 52 percent receiving an A. My study is not an isolated case; there are countless examples of great projects that progressive educators have implemented throughout the world in the Journal of Sustainability Education.

5. What are the leading trends for environmental programs and academic innovations?

I do not know if there are leading trends because the sustainability movement is still a very pluralistic movement, which I kind of like. For those who are interested in this question, Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society, by Andres Edwards, is a good resource. Edwards provides a context to the sustainability movement and notes great applications of sustainability in local communities. I do have to say, it seems that some institutions tend to focus more on research that supports the growth paradigm by primarily funding technologies associated with economic development in the energy sector instead of committing environment preservation, and social justice issues.

6. How can colleges and universities support environmental projects on a national scale and collaborate to better serve global efforts?

Sustainability in Higher Education (SHE), promoted by the United Nations, goes back to the 1970s. In 1992, Agenda 21 was created to promote awareness in higher education to focus on developing training in sustainability. In more recent years, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (ASSHE) has taken the lead on creating partnerships and providing resources for sustainability education. ASSHE has created such resources as a case study database, a list of campus organizations, and the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) to measure sustainability performance through a self-reporting framework.

7. Who was significantly influential in your career path with green technology and environmental innovations?

Dr. Mark Reader, a political scientist at Arizona State University, was the one who first got me to further explore environmental issues at the academic level. Before being mentored by Dr. Reader, environmentalism seemed to me to be more of a personal choice and not a moral imperative that needed to be shared. However, my real passion began when I started to work on coursework in the Ph.D. program at Prescott College. I was given the opportunity to learn from leaders in environmentalism and globalization, such as Dr. Max Oelschlaeger (Northern Arizona University), Dr. Manuel Chavez (Michigan State University), and Dr. Paul Sneed (Prescott College). This is when I was able to start putting theory into practice by creating projects that promoted sustainability education.

8. What inspired your work and commitment to environmental efforts and ecology?

There has not been one set-alone thing, or moment that inspired me. I was fortunate to grow up in an area of Maryland that allowed me to play and explore in nature. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of camping and fishing on the Potomac River. As an adult, I have had the opportunity to explore very diverse ecosystems, like the jungles of Belize and Arizona desert. All of the places I have visited are facing future challenges that could completely destroy whole ecosystems. I enjoy spending time in nature with my family and I hope future generations will have the same opportunities.

9. Of your recent research and professional experiences, which has had most significance?

Hands down, being the innovator of the Chandler Gilbert Community College Environmental Technology Center has been my most significant professional experience. I helped transform a desolate two-acre plot of land into a hub of experiential learning, where students work on projects such as adobe brick building, composting, planting gardens, and experiments associated with a variety of courses. That being said, I am now very excited to be in my new role as the first Experiential Learning Program Manager in the Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Baltimore. I think I am in a position which will allow me the autonomy to explore community engagement and sustainability projects and to influence a wider community.

10. What book(s) are you currently reading, or have you recently finished?

I just finished reading Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, by Bill Moyer, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I just picked up The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert.

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