Associate professor to travel to Cambodia on Fulbright grant

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Senior News Reporter
PHOTO COURTESY OF GAIL DICKINSON

A Texas State professor has received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program grant to lecture and conduct research in Cambodia for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Gail Dickinson, College of Education associate professor, will attempt to reform practices at schools in the city of Phnom Penh and the Svay Rieng Province. She will work with students and teachers in an attempt to establish cutting-edge education practices from secondary schools to universities.

The Fulbright Program is an international exchange plan sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) with the goal of increasing understanding between citizens of the United States and of other countries, according to the ECA website.

Dickinson said she plans to take advantage of a changing political climate in Cambodia. She thought about applying for a Fulbright grant for “quite some time” but made the decision after Cambodia implemented new educational reforms.

“You couldn’t ask for a better time to go (to Cambodia) if you want to be a part of nationwide reforms,” Dickinson said. “There’s pressure on the government to change things, and they’re going to start changing now. The politics define what you can actually accomplish.”

Dickinson’s research at Texas State has focused on teaching future educators how to instruct students. She sees herself as a “science evangelist.”

Dickinson first visited Cambodia in 2010 as part of a program supported by the World Bank Group to improve university-level science courses. The aim was to establish an inquiry-based science class for Cambodian university freshmen, she said.

“Improving education means moving away from pure lecture,” Dickinson said.

In a traditional science class, an instructor lectures before sending students to verify what they learned in a lab, Dickinson said. In inquiry instruction, students explore a topic through experimentation before receiving an explanation from a teacher.

“If I tell (a student) the world is round, they will nod and say, ‘Yes, the world is round because my teacher told me,’” Dickinson said. “If you get kids to ask questions and test things that challenge their assumptions, kids will change their minds.”

The inquiry-based science curriculum Dickinson developed from her work in 2010 centers on topics relevant to Cambodians, she said. Students will model the rock cycle with chocolate chips, demonstrate mechanics through the construction of a bicycle and learn the basics of nutrition and pollution.

Dickinson experienced some societal and cultural surprises in 2011 when she tested the curriculum with Cambodian students. She had trouble encouraging students to express their ideas. In Cambodian culture, asking a professor questions is often considered disrespectful.

“(The Cambodian students) wanted the right answer to put on the paper first, and that’s the last thing you want to do,” Dickinson said.

Dickinson was encouraged by her experiences teaching Cambodian students. Her students readily adapted to working and communicating in small groups despite difficulties with individual expression.

“They had hugely animated discussions about things,” Dickinson said. “You could tell they were hashing things out. The students can do this, so now we just got to convince some faculty they can do this.”

Daris Hale, Fulbright ambassador and music senior lecturer, spent a year in Tanzania as part of the grant program. Hale taught music at a small Lutheran university where she worked with local composers.

Hale said she composed much of her work by adapting Tanzanian musical compositions to Western orchestral instruments.

“It was awesome to have African composers sitting there all of a sudden hearing their music from instruments they had never seen,” Hale said.

Hale maintains communications with faculty, students and friends at the university in Tanzania. Two of her former Tanzanian students have come to Texas to pursue master’s degrees. One student is currently studying at Texas State.

“The Fulbright Program is transformative,” Hale said. “You are building bridges and making connections with people on the other side of the planet. You’re being exposed to different cultures and learning styles and techniques.”

Steve Wilson, Fulbright representative and English associate chair, said participation in the program has created benefits for Texas State faculty and students.

Texas State has been named a “top producer” for the Fulbright Program numerous times, Hale said. She believes Wilson’s efforts are largely responsible for the program’s success on campus.

“We’re in the same league as some of the biggest universities in the nation, and it is Steve Wilson who is the manpower behind it,” Hale said. “We have so much Fulbright stuff happening here, and it’s really cool, but it’s really unusual. I mean we’re, like, on fire with Fulbright.”

About 95 percent of all Texas State Fulbright applications are accepted, Wilson said.

Wilson encourages Dickinson and other Fulbright Scholars to approach the experience with an open mind.

“It’s never what you think it’s going to be when you get there,” Wilson said. “Surprises occur, and often they’re nothing you anticipated, but they come to define your experience. Get ready for whatever.”