A hands-on learning experience

A hands-on learning experience

Interdisciplinary field schools to Southeast Asia help Australian students see the region as part of their future, writes THUSHARA DIBLEY.

Housing in Singapore, transport in Jakarta, food security in Timor-Leste—these are just some of the real-world problems that students from the University of Sydney are grappling with as part of their studies.

Through short-term interdisciplinary field schools organised by the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC), students apply their knowledge to a range of diverse, complex and pressing problems facing the region. These intensive, hands-on learning experiences help students view Southeast Asia as a part of their academic and professional future.

SSEAC is an interdisciplinary hub at the University of Sydney which bring together over 250 academics with an interest in the region. The centre membership, which is the largest of its kind in Australia, spans 13 of the university’s 16 faculties and consists of people actively involved in research, teaching and capacity building in the region. A key purpose of the centre is to bring people together across disciplinary boundaries, whether they be researchers—or, in the case of the field schools, undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Two students from the Singapore Housing Policy Field School taking a break (Gracie Guan).

Over the past 12 months, SSEAC has been developing and implementing its flagship interdisciplinary approach to student mobility into Southeast Asia. These programs are structured around a practical problem that can be addressed from multiple perspectives, and students from at least three different disciplines are involved. Academics from the relevant disciplines are invited to participate in the program, with one academic lead taking carriage of the program.

The programs are designed to open up the experience of studying in Southeast Asia to students who may not have otherwise considered travelling to the region with the aim of encouraging longer-term engagement. Intensive in-country experiences held in the summer or winter break are embedded in semester-long units of study so that students whose degree structures are quite rigid can participate. Students take part also in intensive language training and a pre-departure program before they leave.

Focus on food security

The first of these intensives was held in Timor-Leste in July 2013 and focused on food security. The field school, which built on an existing clinical placement program for medical students, brought together students from medicine, agriculture and education.

Accompanied by academics from their respective disciplines, the group of nine students spent the first week of the field school in Maubisse, a rural town in the hinterlands of Timor-Leste. There they analysed the role doctors, teachers and farmers played in maintaining food security in the country.

The students spent their days in interdisciplinary groups—involving one student from each of the participating disciplines—visiting farms, clinics and schools where they participated in day-to-day activities relevant to the site. In the evenings the groups reported back what they had learnt. During the second week of the program, the students took up discipline-specific internships back in Dili. The program was funded by the Department of Education through its Short-Term Mobility Program, which subsidised the costs for students and staff. This same program was run again in 2014, this time funded directly by SSEAC.

The roll-out of the Australian government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP) has provided further support for these interdisciplinary programs. As part of Tranche 1 of the NCP pilot program, in July 2014 SSEAC took 20 students to Singapore to study housing policy. The students were drawn from architecture, business, geography and political economy. They were accompanied by staff from SSEAC, the Faculty of Architecture and Environment, and the Sydney Business School during their two weeks in Singapore.

During the first week of the program, the students heard presentations by government departments, visited Housing Development Board apartments and attended lectures by academics from the National University of Singapore. In the second week, the students devised and answered a research question related to housing in Singapore, which they presented on the final day of their trip.

Intensive programs

The programs are intensive, but the direct involvement of academics helps maximise students’ engagement in a supportive and supervised context. In turn, this helps demystify the region, and helps them to see the possibility of returning for leisure or for study. Two of the students who participated in the 2013 Timor-Leste field school had never been to an Asian country before. As a result of the trip, both went on to plan extended travel in Southeast Asia.

A number of students who participated in the field school to Singapore commented that it was not a country they had considered travelling to for study until they saw the program advertised. Having participated, some identified Singapore as a field site for their honours project or as a destination for exchange or postgraduate study.

These academically challenging intensive programs not only give students an in-depth snapshot of the region, they also push them to develop problem-solving, communication and teamwork skills needed in the professional world. By working across disciplines, the students learn from each other, but also learn how to negotiate different perspectives and how to work collaboratively under a tight deadline. As a student who participated in the Singapore field school said: ‘I got a lot out of the trip not just in terms of learning about Singapore but also improving my teamwork skills and ability to work with a strict deadline. Plus I had a lot of fun.’

The interdisciplinary model of field school is one that SSEAC will continue to roll out across the region. Over the next year, the centre will use New Colombo Plan funding to run field schools about transport to Jakarta—involving engineers, occupational therapists and marketing students— and rural–urban migration to Batam.

In addition, we will use other funds to coordinate field schools on social entrepreneurship in Myanmar and ancient urbanism in Cambodia. Through these hands-on and engaging learning experiences, we believe that Southeast Asia will start to come into focus for young Australians as a place of opportunities and challenges—a place where they can learn and to which they have something practical to contribute.

Main photo:
Two students from the Singapore Housing Policy Field School taking a break (Gracie Guan).

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