A few years ago, Parkland College Study Abroad Coordinator Jody Littleton challenged me to think about how my classes could be different and possibly even better through adding more cultural reflection. When teaching in the quantitative sciences, it is easy to overlook the power that curriculum infused with an international perspective can have on student learning.
I had fallen prey to the mindset that I just needed to “get through the material” as presented in the book and on the Course Information Forms. After ruminating on her suggestion, though, I realized that I might be able to teach specific topics better if I created well-thought-out assessments with a global outlook. Jody and I continued the conversation, and when several Parkland faculty partnered with Joliet Junior College to travel to China a month ago (March 2017), I joined in.
It was a trip of a lifetime that opened my eyes to what may have been missing from my teaching. For one, this trip made my feet itch with the desire to travel outside of the US for my professional development. How can I teach about unique nutritional deficiencies, different modes of physical activity in the world, living quarters’ impact on health, medical training, and more if I only have a book for reference? I also quickly realized that my perspectives on China had been missing critical pieces of information; once abroad, I was able to form a holistic picture of Chinese culture and better compare it to the US as well as other to countries I have visited. While many topics I had studied prior to my trip were “mostly correct,” visiting China clarified several misconceptions, gave me a new appreciation, and allowed me to better understand the full picture.
What I Learned During the Faculty Study Abroad
- I was shocked to see how quickly China is becoming Westernized, to the point that McDonald’s delivers in many cities in China. At the train station waiting for the bullet train, there were two KFC restaurants as well as a McDonald’s in one moderate-sized train station.
- At the farmer’s market, we saw many choices that we don’t see in the United States. Lamb intestine, cow stomach, chicken feet, and more were sitting out for purchase from morning until evening, with patrons bringing them home to cook for dinner. When we were invited to eat with the Nanjing Technical School faculty and deans, we were able to sample more of the local fair, including duck heads, a native delicacy. (In case you were wondering, you eat duck heads like oysters.)
- Most places we ate at served food “family style” with a turntable in the center. Plates were significantly smaller than in the US. Because everyone is sharing, I didn’t want to take more food than would be socially appropriate, so, it encouraged me to eat more modest portions than I am accustomed to eating. I also learned that rice is often not served in China if the host would like to impress you with the quality of food offered. Rice is not the food of the rich. The rich eat a meat- and fish-based diet with significantly fewer vegetables than China has historically consumed. In turn, there is a marked rise in obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes.
- Even on good days, the smog in some locations of China would impede my ability to see the sun and, possibly, my ability to synthesize enough vitamin D to meet my nutritional needs without supplementation/fortification.
- Toilets in China are often similar to the stalls you see here. We discussed that women would realistically need to retain the ability to perform a deep squat if they were to use a public toilet. However, it seemed of little concern as many older individuals in China had a greater range of motion than we see in the US. Possibly due to the toilets?
- When we visited a local park at 10 a.m. during the weekday, we noted that many people engaged in exercise…dance, tai chi, fencing, badminton, etc. Retirees in China do not retire to the couch. They get out during the day to enjoy other’s company as well as keep active physically and mentally.
How What I Learned Changed My Curriculum
- Now, in each module of my BIO 120 class (Fundamentals of Nutrition), students have the opportunity to present a module-specific cultural comparison between China and the US. During the digestive system module, students can discuss the incidence of specific GI disorders in China relative to the US. For example, a student researched and found a higher incidence of lactose intolerance/maldigestion in China due to both environmental and genetic factors.
- My KIN 288 (Exercise Physiology) class is finding peer-reviewed journal articles comparing topics such as air quality impact on VO2max, changes in childhood obesity rates in response to Westernization, and the selection and training of Olympic hopefuls in China.
- In all of my classes, students have the option of creating a video focusing on the cultural comparison between China and the US. We are partnering with our PCTV studio, and many of the videos will become available on YouTube mid-May.
Overall, visiting China was a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I constantly took pictures, spoke with locals, and absorbed all the nuances I could. Other Parkland College faculty who participated in this grant echo my sentiments, and we plan to collectively present about our experiences this September. We look forward to sharing more of our perspectives then.
[An associate professor in Natural Sciences, Toni Burkhalter was Parkland College’s Teaching Excellence Award winner for 2016].