CSU Biology A 'Best Practice' In International Studies

Columbus State University's biology curriculum generated extraordinary experiences for students in 2004. Highlights included a swim with dolphins along the Bahamian ocean reef and an interactivedemonstration in the Australian rainforest of the endangered 'flying fox' by one of Australias leading environmental scientists.

Incorporating such activity into the curriculum has merited an international studies Best Practice designation from the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

The designation, for 'Best Practices in International Education: Most Internationalized Academic Unit,' means a cash award for program development and prestige among university system peers. The board of regents will feature CSU biology as a model to increase an international focus in academic - particularly science - curricula system-wide.

CSU Vice President for Academic Affairs Martha Saunders said the award is a prestigious honor. 'We are proud of the growth of all our international programs - particularly in the sciences. This award gives evidence of a very real commitment by the faculty toward a quality educational experience for our students.'

The award is based on the success of a pair of ecology-based study abroad programs CSU facilitates in exotic locations every spring break and May session. Destinations in 2004 were Andros Island in the Bahamas and Queensland, Australia.

Professor Julie Ballenger, who directs the programs, said the students tend to come away with a new ecological and multicultural awareness, in addition to developing their investigative research skills.

The course 'Natural History of the Bahamas' immersed 20 students for a week during CSU's spring break in the ecosystems on Andros Island. They studied fishes, plants and invertebrates daily in a near-pristine environment. Additionally, they experienced Bahamian culture through visits to nearby villages. The itinerary reflected 'meticulous planning,' said College of Science Dean George Stanton. 'These trips are planned to minute detail. Even 'free time' is carefully planned. No time is wasted, and student focus is maintained.'

Upon return to CSU, the students analyzed their data and individuallypresented their findings to the entire group for a final grade.

Ballenger, who serves as the assistant director of CSU's Center for International Education, also recounted an unlikely encounter during the Bahamas trip. While engaged in aquatic exploration, the CSU group was interrupted by a pair of dolphins that had struggled to cross over a sandbar to join them. The dolphins proceeded to swim and chatter among the students for several minutes. 'It was an amazing interaction, the type of which our (Bahamian) guide had never seen before.'

About two months later, Ballenger and a team of faculty colleagues led another class abroad for a course titled 'Ecology of Australia.' This 19-day adventure covered the Australian rainforest, tablelands, outback and ocean reef. Among several highlights, the 18 students studied up close, and handled, the flying fox (a rare, small-dog- sized bat species) during a meeting with Hugh Spencer, one of Australias leading wildlife biologists.

Though physically challenging, the course was another success, Ballenger said. 'The group synergy was amazing, with each student working hard, putting in 18-hour days with no complaints.'

Such dedication also applies to the faculty, Ballenger said. Since the study abroad programs began in 1999, biology faculty members Stanton, Bill Birkhead, Glenn Stokes, Harlan Hendricks, Carson Stringfellow and John Barone have participated along with Ballenger as teaching mentors in the field. 'Without their cooperation and hard work, we would not succeed nor be able to carry out these trips.'

Center for International Education Director Neal McCrillis, expanded on Ballenger's assessment. 'The success is due to three things: the dedication of faculty, the 'out of the box' thinking of the faculty that has created a strong but flexible curriculum, and the support of the whole university and community through the Center for International Education and scholarships.'

While costs (about $1,400 for Andros and $2,700 for Australia) can be offset for students through scholarship funds, Stanton said faculty have sacrificed financially in order to participate, 'particularly in the earlier years when faculty paid their own expenses and even taught without compensation.'

Regardless of the financial factors, Stanton said the programs have flourished with a strong rapport between faculty and students. 'Students want to spend time with and study with these faculty. After a few years the program developed a reputation that has fed future recruitment.'

The number of student applicants has increasingly overwhelmed the available spaces. In addition to several CSU students who were turned away, last May's Australia trip drew 40 university system student applicants from other campuses ? many from the University of Georgia, said Ballenger.

While destinations have included Ecuador, Belize and Africa, the 2005 trips feature a spring break return to the Bahamas and a May session in Botswana, Africa ('The Ecology of Sub-Saharan Africa'). Stanton said thoughtful consideration is given to the selected destinations. 'We take students to ecological settings that are global hot spots.'

Citing the success and demand for the biology study abroad program, Ballenger said she and her colleagues are exploring an additional, third trip that would take place during the winter holiday break.

For more information on the biology study abroad programs at CSU, including photos from previous trips, visit online at http://bio.colstate.edu/International%20Classes.htm.


Contact: Julie Ballenger, 569-3015; E-mail: ballenger_julie@ColumbusState.edu