I write this article as a young African woman with a passion for her continent and a hunger for innovation.
As I attended one of the pre-events of the 13th RUFORUM Annual General Meeting in Lilongwe, Malawi, I happened to sit in one of the side events in which the Provost for EARTH University, Dr Daniel Sherrard shared the vision of EARTH University with Deans and Principals of African universities. I have heard about EARTH University quite a number of times. For a reason, which I will explain as I go along, the innovativeness with which this university approaches higher education struck me this time.
Located in the heart of a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, the university was established in 1990 with the aim of investing in students – predominantly from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa to become leaders of positive socio-economic and environmental change for their home countries and the world at large through a techno-scientific education that also emphasizes ‘ethical entrepreneurship’.
The word ‘EARTH’ itself is an acronym for the Spanish phrase, Escuela de Agricultura de la Region Tropical Humeda.
EARTH University approaches education based on two principles:
- Student-centeredness: This means that students – individually and collectively – explore real challenges first hand and become active participants in accumulating knowledge and generating understanding, as opposed to passively receiving information.
- Experiential: Students are engaged in weekly field experiences, business operations, and a third-year international internship, allowing them to test and build upon the knowledge they have been acquiring.
The student centred approach takes a radical shift from the conventional lectures and assignments to allowing the students to have a somewhat flexible but rewarding learning experience. Specifically, they have five key elements that ensure experiential learning within the four-year undergraduate program:
Work Experience. Where students work in crop, animal, and forestry production modules on the EARTH farm. In the fourth year, students identify work sites or activities on campus or in surrounding communities that correspond with their career goals and develop and implement a work plan, dedicating a minimum of 10 hours per week to the “job.”
Community Development. where students work on an individual basis with small-scale, local producers on their farms and with organized groups in sustainable community development. During this experience in the community, students try to resolve problems facing the community.
Academic Program at EARTH-La Flor. Where students in their third year, spend seven weeks living with a host family near EARTH’s education and research center in Guanacaste, a province in the dry tropics of Costa Rica, where they have the opportunity to become actively involved in the region’s development process. Students contribute to improvements in the communities and also gain experience by working with companies in the region in such areas as crop and livestock management.
Entrepreneurial Projects. Students develop a business venture from beginning to end during their first three years at EARTH. Small groups of 4–6 students, of different nationalities, decide upon a business activity related to agriculture and natural resources and conduct a feasibility study (including financial, social, and environmental criteria). If the study is approved by a panel of professors, other students, and external experts, the university loans money to the company, and the team implements the project, including the marketing and sale of the final product.
After repaying their loan, with interest, the group shares the profits. The Entrepreneurial Project is accompanied by a series of classroom modules related to business organization, accounting, marketing, and similar themes.
Internships. In their third trimester of their third year, students leave campus and take part in an internship program with a host organization such as a business, NGO, or farm. This internship program lasts 15 weeks and is a crucial component of the student’s experiential education.
During the meeting, I listened with enthusiasm as the EARTH University Principal went on to share the achievements and success stories they had amassed over the years. As the plenary session unfolded, one of the delegates asked how a model such as this could be successfully replicated, or rather, adapted considering our rigid and conventional educational system that places more value on sitting at a desk and writing exams as compared to being given a real life problem to solve.
It is at this moment that the radicalism of EARTH University hit me.
In my view, the million dollar question is not really how this model could be replicated; but how ready we are to change the way we do things as a continent.
Are universities ready to change the way they view education? Are they ready to endorse the process and outcome of problem solving as a valid show of capability?
I think it will take a lot of changes in our systems; but the greatest of these is a mindset change.
It is my view that as long as we equate learning to sitting at a desk and listening -sometimes dozing or daydreaming- Africa will continue to produce degree holders and not problem solvers.
What are our national policies on education? Do they have room for radical change? Innovation? Are our African governments ready to fund a university that puts less emphasis on lectures and more on problem solving?
Better yet, how does our society view education and learning? Is Africa ready to embrace change in the way institutions approach learning? I can only imagine the quizzical look of a parent who has sent her child to a prestigious college with her hard earned money only to hear that the institution ‘doesn’t quite focus on lectures but on problem solving’.
When all is said and done, the African demographic dividend is bulging, it continues to skew toward young people. This trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. While the discussions to build the entrepreneurial skills of young people has been going back and forth, there is still a need to start from somewhere. Loans and start up capital programs could be the solution but what if we develop Africa wide degree programs that adapt the EARTH university approach by equipping our young people to learn how to solve African problems in an innovative manner? What if we indeed invest in innovation in our education systems for the betterment of the quality of graduates we produce? Your guess is as good as mine, that we might turn out better off than we are now.
Written by Catherine Mloza-Banda, Onsite Reporter for the RUFORUM AGM 2017.