Innovative approach to studying abroad connects students to global learning during pandemic

February 19th, 2021

Since 2002, Lee Burras, Morrill Professor in the Department of Agronomy, has been taking Iowa State students to countries around the world, including Costa Rica (pictured in background). Due to travel restrictions put in place last year because of COVID-19, this is the longest span of time Burras has not gone on a trip abroad. Photo by Christopher Gannon

By Whitney Baxter

Lee Burras believes field learning is essential to any student’s education. When the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary halt to all of Iowa State University’s study abroad trips, Burras found an innovative way to still offer international experiences to students.

Burras, Morrill Professor in the Department of Agronomy, has been taking Iowa State students to countries around the world since 2002. While on these study abroad trips, students experience other cultures and see first-hand how agricultural practices differ from those in the United States.

“Every time I lead a study abroad course, it reinforces my perspective that students learn best in an upbeat environment,” Burras said. “They learn to ask their own questions and make their own interpretations.”

His colleague, Amber Anderson, assistant teaching professor in agronomy, was supposed to take students to Costa Rica during spring break in March 2020, and he was to take a group to Uruguay during Thanksgiving break last November. To make up for those cancelled trips, he worked with in-country hosts from both countries over the summer to put together two virtual study abroad courses – one to each country. His plans were approved just in time for students to sign up for the courses shortly before the fall 2020 semester.

Each course met once per week for eight weeks and included presentations from various individuals involved in agriculture, as well as interactions with the in-country hosts.

Halie Jackson, senior in agronomy, chose to participate in the Costa Rica virtual trip after her in-person trip was cancelled in spring 2020. A coffee lover, Jackson appreciated learning about production of coffee and other crops grown in higher altitudes.

“The course and Dr. Burras were very flexible with scheduling, which was great, and the meetings were longer, so we were able to learn a lot about different aspects of the country from our homes,” Jackson said.

Like Jackson, Erin Stichter, senior in agronomy, was supposed to go to Costa Rica last spring. She appreciated how Burras supplemented the online presentations with pictures from previous trips.

“I’m glad that I took it, but I really wish we could have been there,” Stichter said of the Costa Rica virtual study abroad course. “Honestly, I got more out of it than I thought I would.”

Burras took the virtual experience one step further by giving students as close to an in-person experience as possible. For each trip, Burras provided students an itinerary they would have followed, had they been traveling. On the day they “arrived” at their first stop, Burras instructed students to look at Google maps and select a restaurant in the area at which to eat. From those submissions, Burras chose the restaurant, as he would have done on the trip, then asked students to pick a menu item from that restaurant, make the dish and send a photo of their completed dish.

“People had a blast with it,” Burras said.

Jackson made a burrito bowl with the Costa Rican staples beans and rice. She said the activity was a nice way to gain insight into the country’s culture.

“I have never done something like this before, so it was cool to look up the different kinds of foods they eat and make something that was like what they have down there,” Jackson said.

With a moratorium on all Iowa State study abroad travel through Aug. 1, 2021, Burras is considering offering another virtual trip later this semester. Based on the two fall courses, he said he would make the next virtual experience more synchronous and have presenters speak as they are out walking in the fields, rather than give PowerPoint presentations. He would also invite former students who have taken his earlier trips to talk about what they learned in the country.

Looking back, Burras is glad he offered these virtual field learning experiences for students. For something that had not been done before at Iowa State, he is pleased with the outcome.

“I’m absolutely thrilled I tried it,” Burras said.