Children standing on a garden box in front of a woman wearing a face mask
Students from VCU and partner universities in Colombia and Mexico spent time contributing in classroom settings as part of their study abroad experiences. (Courtesy of the Office of Global Education)

VCU collaborates with universities from Mexico and Colombia for STEM teaching program

Students gained hands-on experience with STEM education in another country thanks to the 100,000 Strong grants won by the Global Education Office and School of Education.

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Students from Virginia Commonwealth University and universities in Colombia and Mexico strengthened their STEM educations this summer while exploring new cultures as part of a study abroad program that allowed them to learn and visit in each of their respective countries.

The program, “Building a Collaborative, Innovative and Impactful STEM and Language Training Exchange Program Through Virtual and Study Abroad Partnerships,” consisted of eight weeks of online instruction from May to June, and a weeklong campus visit at three universities. Twenty-four students participated in the program – 12 from VCU and 12 from the Universidad de Guadalajara (UDeG) in Mexico and Universidad El Bosque (UEB) in Colombia.

The program was made possible by a 100,000 Strong in Americas Innovation Fund grant, a program that emphasizes STEM and language development programs. VCU’s Global Education Office and School of Education secured the grant together. Global Education previously received a 100,000 Strong grant in 2021 that allowed VCU to partner with UdeG on a STEM education program.

Jill Blondin, Ph.D., executive director of GEO, said the 100,000 Strong grant is important because it increases mobility between the United States and other countries in the hemisphere. While VCU has a preexisting relationship with the UDeG, this is the first time it has partnered with UEB.

A portrait of Monica Perales
Monica Perales, a graduate student studying software engineering at UDeG, was one of the participants who visited the U.S. (Contributed photo)

“I would say that one of the greatest things about 100K Strong is that they do bring together new partners, but they also enhance relationships with established partnerships,” Blondin said.

From June 27 to July 1, students from UDeG and UEB visited the U.S. and studied on VCU’s campus. Monica Perales, a graduate student studying software engineering at UDeG, was one of the participants who visited the U.S. She said she had always wanted to study abroad and could learn a lot from the U.S. education system, as well as the cultural exchange.

In addition to visiting culturally significant places and classroom learning, she also helped develop and teach a class for children ages 2 to 5 at VCU’s Child Development Center.

Twelve students from VCU also went abroad, visiting Colombia from July 11 to 15 and Mexico from July 4 to 8.

Raquel Wetzell, a graduate student at VCU studying environmental studies who participated in the VCU Globe program as an undergraduate, was the only noneducation major who took the trip to Colombia. In the U.S., she works at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility focused on mussel propagation. She interacts a lot with the community and leads tour groups through her work with the facility. Wetzell said she explains the work done at the facility to people unfamiliar with it, and she also strives to get children excited about science and nature.

“When I saw this opportunity come up, I thought it would be a good way for me to improve my science communication and see the flip side of how teachers plan STEM into their curriculum,” she said. “Like trying to communicate these ideas with their kids and how I could help facilitate that during field trip experiences.”

A woman standing in front of several children
Raquel Wetzell, a graduate student at VCU studying environmental studies who participated in the VCU Globe program as an undergraduate, helped develop and teach a 90-minute lesson about rainbows to a class of first graders while in Bogota, Colombia. (Courtesy of Raquel Wetzell)

Wetzell said the students at UEB were extremely welcoming, showing them around the campus and city.

“A few of them especially would just hang out with us even when we weren't having officiated time, but we wanted to do different tours and stuff,” she said.

While in Bogota, Colombia, Wetzell helped develop and teach a 90-minute lesson about rainbows to a class of first graders. One of the biggest challenges for her was modifying her message to different audiences.

“Whether it's a different age group, whether it's people with different interests and attention spans, or whether it's people that speak multiple languages at different levels. It requires you to be flexible and open to new ideas," Wetzell said.

Blondin said what she hopes participants take away from the program is that learning in different countries yields multiple perspectives. 

“The most exciting thing,” she said, “is that we have Colombian and Mexican and American students who are learning side by side with professors from all of those countries in the institutions in those countries.”