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Promoting cultural awareness through project-based learning

By Janet Harron

A third-year geography class at Memorial has been working on a project this semester that they hope will help to address the unique problems of small communities in rural Newfoundland.

Assistant geography professor Dr. Kelly Vodden was approached by Tanya Noble of the Rural Secretariat in July 2009 to examine communities in the Kittiwake Coast area. Dr. Vodden had previously presented to the Gander-New-Wes-Valley Regional Council on collaborative governance and regional development and had worked in Twillingate-New World Island and Indian Bay as research study areas well known to the Rural Secretariat.

The communities in question include Twillingate, New World Island, Gander Bay, New-Wes-Valley, Fogo Island and Change Islands, including the Town of Tilting and Lewisporte. Communities such as these are heavily dependent on the work of volunteers and have similar problems in terms of implementing plans and projects.

Dr. Vodden, a big believer in project-based learning, explains that geographers, who have a long history of involvement in planning, are uniquely positioned to look at the relationships between spatial scales or between one community and several communities.

“I have been teaching a class in economic geography since 2007 and introduced a project in winter 2008 which looks at the sustainability of the St. John’s campus economy. However, this was the first time I have done this kind of applied project with students outside of the university,” said Dr. Vodden.

After an initial meeting in October in Gander, the 16 undergraduate students in Dr. Vodden’s Community and Regional Planning and Development class prepared case studies of seven planning processes within five sub-regions of the Gander-New-Wes-Valley region, considering questions such as the implementation barriers faced in strategic planning and what is required to aid communities in the process of moving from planning to implementation.

These case studies were presented as in-class oral presentations on Dec. 1. Community and regional participants including representatives from Innovation Trade and Rural Development (INTRD), the Gander-New-Wes-Valley Rural Secretariat Regional Council, and Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) were on hand to hear the results.

Ms. Noble of the Rural Secretariat is very pleased with Phase One of the project.
“I have been impressed by the enthusiasm, dedication and involvement of the students throughout the term. Recent presentations from the groups were well thought out, covered a great deal of material and were presented quite professionally,” she commented.

Brian Woodford, one of the students involved in the project, was assigned to examine Fogo and Change Islands.

“This project definitely helps to promote cultural awareness. I’m from a rural area myself (Avondale) but I didn’t know anything at all about the unique challenges faced by Fogo and the Change Islands,” said Mr. Woodford.

For Phase Two of the project, which will begin in January 2010, Dr. Vodden plans to hire a student who will complete a comparative analysis of the case study areas and identify recommendations for government and community stakeholders in consultation with the project steering committee. A final workshop will be held in March in Gander.

As an example of how engaged and invested students have been in this project, Dr. Vodden said that several students have already expressed interest in attending the March meeting even though the class work has been completed.
“They are truly interested in seeing the results of this project and I’m very pleased to see this level of interest and commitment,” she said.

From the perspective of the Rural Secretariat, Ms. Noble feels the partnership has been very successful and she hopes that other departments at Memorial will be as receptive to working with her organization in the future. She also acknowledges the importance of the Yaffle search engine (www.yaffle.ca), launched earlier this year by the Harris Centre, in helping to locate researchers interested in working with the communities and the Rural Secretariat.
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