Piloting a “Global Flip” study abroad experience in China

With today’s technology, distance is no longer a barrier, and collaborating with learners halfway around the world is a tangible reality.

Understanding this potential for enhanced learning and wanting to equip students with a global mindset, Dr. Kristi Straus piloted the UW’s first “Global Flip” in collaboration with Dr. Xi Lu at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. For students learning about sustainability, understanding the ways that the U.S. and China contribute to unsustainability, as well as the unique American and Chinese approaches to solutions, is vital. With Kristi’s class focusing on sustainability, forging a relationship with a university in China made sense.

The resulting experience was exciting and eye-opening for Kristi and the students.

Launching UW’s first Global Flipped Classroom

Shunxi Liu
Dr. Kristi Straus enjoying a lecture at Cabot (China).

Kristi was a Teaching Technology Fellow in 2014, and one of the first Evidence-Based Teaching (EBT) pilot members. She became an EBT coach in Spring 2016, supporting other faculty in understanding the research about effective teaching and then implementing changes in their classrooms. Through her leadership in these areas, Kristi was approached by the UW Office of the Provost about piloting the “Global Flip.”

Flipping the classroom allows students to engage in active learning and discussion in the classroom, while watching recorded lectures at home. This method aims to enrich learning and encourage more meaningful interaction among the instructor and students. In the Global Flip, Dr. Straus used the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) method, where students from Tsinghua and UW watched the same lecture videos and then interacted at their own Universities, and virtually, across the Pacific.

The course content grew out of  Kristi’s popular ENVIR 239: Sustainability and Personal Choices class which encourages students to ponder sustainability in their own lives and become more aware of choices they make.

UW students (left to right) Congshan Amanda Bai, TJ Gascho, Yushan Tong, and Shunxi Liu
Shunxi Liu
UW students (left to right) Congshan Amanda Bai, TJ Gascho, Yushan Tong, and Shunxi Liu in China.

The Global Flip empowers students to think more deeply about unique sustainability challenges faced by different societies and how culture shapes the resulting solutions that could emerge.

The culmination of this Autumn quarter class was a ten-day study abroad experience in Beijing, collaborating in person with the Tsinghua faculty and students whom they’d learned with virtually all quarter.

Dr. Straus took 15 UW students (including Environmental Studies, International Studies, and Environmental Sciences majors) to Beijing over the 2017 Winter Break.

Global engagement to be a world of good

Through frequent online collaborations, students from UW and Tsinghua University in Beijing grappled with questions such as: What does sustainability mean to us? What does unsustainability look like in our countries/cities/cultures? What problems do we face and how can we solve them?

Shunxi Liu
Dr. Lu and Dr. Straus leading a shared lecture, teaching an interactive class about salmon, hydropower and the removal of the Elwha Dam in Washington.

Students at Tsinghua University watched the lectures that Kristi taught at UW, setting up an incredible situation where students had in-person sessions at their own schools as well as access to an international, multi-cultural online learning environment, emphasizing collaboration between students in China and the U.S.

Says Kristi, “It is certainly innovative, helps us to learn together across boundaries, uses technology and the skills of our students while also teaching our students multicultural and multi-disciplinary collaboration and problem solving, virtually. I can’t imagine more important skills for this generation.”

The ten-day study abroad to Tsinghua University in Beijing was the culminating experience of the course. UW students collaborated  with the Tsinghua students, visited water treatment centers, solar and wind farms and waste management facilities, and discussed the viability of renewables meeting the country’s long-term energy needs. They heard from well-known researchers across China and saw first-hand how Beijing is doing from a sustainability perspective.

In addition, students learned about Chinese culture and history, visiting the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and shared traditional meals with Tsinghua students.

For Program on the Environment student Shunxi Liu, participating in the study abroad experience was a great opportunity to converse with engineering and environmental management students in Professor Xi Lu’s global sustainability class at Tsinghua University and view Beijing through a sustainability lens.

“I see this program as planting the seed for future environmental collaboration between the U.S. and China, and I’m excited I was part of it!” – Shunxi Liu

Learning about sustainability in a global context

In 2016, China made the environment a priority. The Chinese government has set ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions, and they’ve made headway.

UW Program on the Environment student, Shunxi Liu.
UW Program on the Environment student, Shunxi Liu.

UW students and Kristi remarked that the air pollution in Beijing was undetectable. “Maybe it was a combination of the good weather and the rapid implementation of China’s new regulations, but it was noticeable.”

Even more impressive were the tours where students learned about China’s hefty investment in sustainable technology and its rapid shifts in policies to adjust for air quality, even on a daily basis. Indeed, Beijing is focused primarily on environmental sustainability, just one of many contrasts to the efforts in the U.S. which look at economic and social impacts in addition to the environment.

One highlight of the whole experience for Shunxi was a field trip to an industrial area in suburban Beijing, a region which was among the most polluted areas in China. “They are working on integrating circular economy methods to reduce factory pollution and it’s incredible to see in action!”

Other noteworthy trips included visiting a cutting-edge renewable energy power plant. “We saw that China is putting a lot of effort on interdisciplinary scientific research in order to tackle our global environmental challenges,” reflected Shunxi. The Chinese government is also moving towards distributed solar systems to every household.

 Field trip to Yanqing photovoltaic power station
Shunxi Liu
Field trip to Yanqing photovoltaic power station, China.

All in all, the learning was profound, and the students exhibited patience and adaptability in their new environment, soaking up Chinese culture, knowledge, and way of life. Between the online intercultural collaboration and the short-term, affordable study abroad program, this unique course helps bring global perspectives to students who may not otherwise get it at UW, which increases access and equity at our University.

Kristi’s course will run again this Fall quarter and Winter break 2018. Interested students can apply now.