Bringing International Education to the High School Classroom

K-12 teachers and administrators can have a huge impact on the direction of their students’ lives. I can trace my own personal interest in the global world back to my elementary school principal who championed an exchange program between our school district and a school district in France. Thanks to him, I was introduced to the French language and culture at a young age, and that introduction sparked a fascination with other countries that has lasted in me to this day.

As a part of the Generation Study Abroad campaign, IIE has called on secondary school educators to advocate for study abroad “by articulating its benefits and incorporating global education into [their] curriculum.” Like my elementary school principal did for me, educators can play a large role in inspiring their students to think beyond their national boundaries and to view themselves as part of a global society.

Since 1999, IIE has administered an international teacher program funded by Toyota Motor Sales, Inc. Through this program, more than 700 U.S. teachers and administrators have had the opportunity to participate in study tours in five different countries, including Japan, Ecuador (Galapagos Islands), Costa Rica, South Africa, and most recently, Singapore. The program participants have all brought back a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm that they have shared with their students in the United States, igniting a passion and appreciation for the world beyond our national borders.

One such program participant is Pamela Ulicny, a science teacher at Tri Valley Jr/Sr High School in central PA. Through the Toyota International Teacher Program, Ms. Ulicny traveled to South Africa in 2011. Ms. Ulicny described the experience as “the trip of a lifetime,” where she “discovered the rich cultural and biological diversity there, but… also saw discrepancies in educational quality, vocational skills, and job opportunities.” She was struck by the lack of electric lights in some of the townships and how students there often fell behind in their studies because they were unable to work after sunset.

Upon her return to the United States, Ms. Ulicny “wanted to do something that would both help to educate the students in [her] own classroom while attempting to improve the opportunities and lifestyles of international students living in poverty.” Since then, she has partnered with Aspire Youth and Sundance Solar to develop a kit that can turn a simple glass jar into a solar lantern. Moved by the humanitarian nature of the solar lantern project, her students were eager to get involved and help solve a real world problem. Several of them volunteered to create an instructional video on how to build the lanterns. Four years after her study trip, Ms. Ulicny remains actively engaged with her contacts in South Africa and continues to inspire her students to think globally.

Another educator, Jason Shields, a teacher at Kings High School in Kings Mills, OH, had the chance to attend two Toyota-sponsored study tours to Costa Rica, first as a program participant in 2009, then as a Discussion Leader in 2011. Mr. Shields calls his experience abroad as “the most transformative professional development experience [he has] ever had.” He brought his experiences in Costa Rica back home to his students by having them complete challenge based projects, including an irrigation project that has saved the school district 600,000 gallons of water per year. He and his students have received press in the local newspaper for their efforts to incorporate green technology at Kings High School. Says Mr. Shields, “the international professional development opportunity provided by [Toyota] was essential for… reenergizing [his] career as a teacher.”

In 2013, the program switched focus from environmental education to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) education, and involved educators at a single school district, Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) in Ann Arbor, MI. About 30 educators from AAPS, including Dr. Jeanice Swift, the district’s superintendent, have traveled to Singapore as a part of the Toyota STEAM program. For the first time, educators from the host country made a reciprocal visit to the United States to build upon the partnerships started when the AAPS educators were in Singapore.

The educators from Ann Arbor and Singapore were able to work together in small groups on collaborative projects that would unite their schools and their students, including a pen pal program amongst third graders and a water filtration and purification project between Huron High School (Ann Arbor) and Greendale Secondary School (Singapore). Dr. Swift captures much of the initial enthusiasm about the cross-cultural learning experience in a blog post she wrote shortly after her return from Singapore.

This kind of cross-cultural interaction has a lasting impact on the educators that participate on the study tours and on the students who are exposed to other countries through their teachers and educational administrators. One educator from Ann Arbor said the Singapore trip inspired her apply for Ph.D. programs and eventually pursue a Fulbright grant. Perhaps students will decide to study abroad in South Africa, or Costa Rica, or Singapore thanks to the stories told by the educators who have participated in these study tours.

All educators interested in bringing the global world into their classrooms are encouraged to make a pledge to Generation Study Abroad.