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Lessons from the Inca Trail

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Dr. Eric Kuennen wanted to take his students, all future teachers of math, out of their comfort zone. This desire to shake things up led Kuennen and 16 of his students to the mountains, jungles and deserts of Peru.

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Math Education in Peru

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Dr. Eric Kuennen wanted to take his students, all future teachers of math, out of their comfort zone. He wanted them to view the world of mathematics from a different perspective. This desire to shake things up led Kuennen and 16 of his students to the mountains, jungles and deserts of Peru.

"We really need to go someplace that's different from the U.S.," said Kuennen, an assistant professor of math at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, who along with Dr. Jennifer Szydlik, led the students on a study tour in Peru last summer. "We need to take them out of their comfort level."

A Different View

In this four-week course "International Comparative Mathematics Education Seminar," (Math Education in Peru), students spent the first week of class in Oshkosh, where they studied theories and conditions of learning and the theory and practice of teaching. The next two weeks took place in Lima, the capital of Peru, where the students attended class at the Universidad del Pacifico and visited public and private elementary and seconInca castledary schools. The students were also given an opportunity to teach a class to Peruvian students. The last week was spent traveling Peru where they stayed at a jungle lodge in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, explored the Inca ruins and hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Kuennen said going to Peru, for many of his students, was a journey in discovery. "It is completely different from what they are used to in Oshkosh, in Wisconsin," he says. "The city of Lima is a huge sprawling city with lots of lower-income, kind of Third World neighborhoods. It was an eye-opener for our students to see that so much of the world lives in a completely different standard of living than what we're used to."

Two math professors and 16 students embarked on a four-week journey that started in the classroom in Oshkosh and ended in the Peruvian Andes mountains.  In an interview with COLS Special Reports producer Grace Lim, professors Eric Kuennen and Jennifer Szydlik and their students Erica Prosser and Ben Ward talk about the lessons learned on the Inca Trail.

The video is also available for download to your iPod through UW Oshkosh iTunesU (requires iTunes).
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Cities, Jungles and Mountains

Ben Ward, a senior majoring in education, said he knew little about Peru before venturing there. "I heard of the Incas, I've heard of the Andes and I knew that it was in South America," said Ward, who has never traveled outside the United States prior to this trip .

Ward was humbled by what he saw -- from the deplorable conditions in the slum cities to the majestic mountains. "I didn't really expect the slums to be that bad and to be able to see it forever," he said. "But there were also parts that were really beautiful, the sand dunes, the rainforests were amazing, and Machu Picchu was breath-taking."

Fellow student Erica Prosser, who is majoring in elementary education, was equally enthralled. She says the experience of teaching a lesson in the Peruvian schools will help her become a better teacher. She is student teaching in Cameroon this spring.

Inca classroomShe said the students in Peru weren't used to working in groups. "There wasn't much student-centered there at all. It  was more of the teacher-transmitting the knowledge to the kids."

Prosser and her classmates decided to switch things up. They gave the Peruvian kids a group-work activity to tackle. "They were very taken aback," she says. "They weren't used to the idea of mathematics coming from them."

But toward the end of the day, Prosser said the Peruvian kids were getting the hang of this different style of teaching and learning. "They were really catching on, really enjoying the interactive way of learning mathematics."

Prosser said studying abroad has proven invaluable in her quest to be a teacher. "You have to be more sensitive to different cultures to different ways of living," she says. "It’s just so much better to not live underneath a rock and think that your way of living is the right way, or that your way of thinking is the only way. Anytime you can broaden your mind is absolutely beneficial to you and to anybody that you come in contact with."Inca students sitting

Szydlik, who has taught in the math department since 1995, agrees. "It’s very difficult to see your own culture, your own world from the inside only," she said. "And many of these students have never been anywhere but on the inside of their world." 

But the study abroad program gave the students another view of the world. "This gave us the opportunity to see things from the outside, to stand somewhere else," she said. "The math education in Peru trip gave us that, allowed us to see not only that culture, but our own in a different way."


Peru photos courtesy of the instructors and students. Photo composite by Shawn McAfee of UW Oshkosh Media Services. For more information about the math edu in Peru trip, please visit Dr. Eric Kuennen's Web site.



The UWO Math Ed in Peru group riding dune buggies near Huacachina in Ica, Peru.

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