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College of Education and Human Development

Graduate Students Teach Without a Net in Costa Rica

January 23, 2019

Earlier this year, Andy Gilbert was planning a proposal for the Global Education Office at George Mason University and trying to identify an attractive study abroad opportunity for students in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). Nothing was coming together, though, until he teamed up with colleague Kathy Ramos, who had an idea: to put together a dual program focusing on both English as a second language (ESOL) and science instruction.

“I got really excited at that point,” Gilbert said. “I thought it was a really good idea. That gave it a really unique twist.”

In early December, the idea came to fruition when a group from CEHD embarked for Costa Rica. Gilbert, an associate professor, and Ramos, an assistant professor, along with a group of graduate students headed out to work with students from grades K-7 on an enrichment program that combined ESOL teaching with a science curriculum on the importance of water in the community—and in the world.

Seven of the 15 participants were students in a course on Science Methods for the Elementary Classroom. The other eight were enrolled in a course on Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition.

For the 15 graduate students, it was a whirlwind tour of the country. The weeklong trip included a few days of planning and preparing materials before three days of all-day teaching at the Saint Gregory School. Each night, they regrouped and discussed how to tackle the next day.

After the program concluded, they spent their final two days in Costa Rica sightseeing—the Irazú Volcano on Friday and La Paz Waterfall Gardens on Saturday.

“This was probably the smoothest program I’ve ever run,” Gilbert said. “The students did a spectacular job—our future teachers.”

Gilbert recognized the graduate students’ skills early on in the program. He and Ramos provided them with anchor activities to start with as they planned the three-day curriculum—so they weren’t building everything from scratch—and let the students use those as starting points for their own ideas.

The graduate student-teachers had to get their young students to a place where they would understand the importance of water in their community and in the world. The curriculum had to start with the basics: specifically, what water actually does. The classes included experiments, looking at how things dissolve, and how water behaves.

“That was building some experiential stuff for kids that could help them start looking at water with new eyes,” Gilbert said.

From there, they started to look outward. By the third day, the young students were learning about the impact of pollution and how to help keep rivers clean. The program culminated in a museum fair featuring the work they had done throughout the program, the idea for which the graduate students came up with the day before.

According to Gilbert, the idea for the fair was a testament to the graduate students’ versatility and their ability to improvise based on how the kids had responded to the lessons so far. And that’s to say nothing of their ability to navigate kids’ individual needs, all while the graduate students spoke varying degrees of Spanish and the young students spoke varying degrees of English.

“They were teaching without a net,” Gilbert said.

Ultimately, they didn’t need one. It was a huge confidence builder for the graduate students, who were able to enter an unfamiliar atmosphere and use what they had learned to succeed—even in a classroom in Costa Rica.

“Our Mason graduate students are really good,” Gilbert said. “Our programs challenge them, our programs push them, and they’re really well prepared. I was blown away by their professionalism, by their work ethic.”

“They were great representatives for George Mason,” he said.