Design for Economic Empowerment: Student engagement and learning across cultures and disciplines

Donna Riley, Susannah Howe, Nola Reinhardt, John Farris, Paul Lane


In pursuit of an approach to education on issues of global development that simultaneously enhances in-country innovation capacities in the developing world and educates US students about global development toward socially just ends, we collaborated with colleagues in Nicaragua to stimulate employment through new product innovation as facilitated by education. Our interdisciplinary group of faculty from four institutions – two in the United States and two in Nicaragua – conducted a two-week short course in innovation and product development in Nicaragua, with five students from each institution. Non-hierarchical, interdisciplinary, intercultural teams utilized active learning techniques and interaction with community members to learn and apply the product innovation process. We conducted formative and summative classroom assessment during the two-week course and a follow-up open-ended survey a year later directed toward eliciting the meaning of the learning experience for students. Thematic analysis revealed Nicaraguan students’ self-ratings of learning were highest for teamwork and understanding and applying the innovation process, followed closely by cross-cultural communication, while students from the United States rated their learning highest in the area of language, followed by cross-cultural communication, teamwork, and working across disciplines. Student responses illustrate these themes as well as other aspects of students’ learning experiences; overall student’s self-evaluation was quite positive, despite many obstacles inherent in the experience. Drawing on student reflections, we conclude that the collaborative education model was successful, though certainly not without flaws. In this context, we make recommendations for improving learning experiences and working toward more socially just practices for education and development.

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