Service Learning in the Dominican Republic

Study Abroad Program Brings Computer Science, Spanish Students Together

Throughout the spring of 2017, Spanish and computer science students spent the semester brainstorming and working online to develop curriculum for students in the Dominican Republic. After months of preparation, the Marist students spent two weeks of their summer exploring the Dominican Republic and teaching the Dominican students about technology.

Spanish and computer science students experience service learning while exploring the Dominican Republic

Summer 2017 was the fourth year of Marist’s short-term study abroad program in the Dominican Republic. The focus of the program is to teach technology to upper elementary and middle school students and is co-directed by Dr. Carolyn Matheus of the Computer Science department and Dr. Kevin Gaugler of the Spanish department and Weiss Language Center.

According to Matheus, the technology curriculum is student-driven and changes every year. “One year we had an obstacle course, one year we had a race, this past year we had a dance competition- so they programmed [the robots] to dance in local dance styles,” she said. “The focus of the curriculum changes each year as the students have different ideas; we give them a lot of freedom.”

This program is both interdisciplinary and committed to service learning program. According to Matheus, these components are what makes the program unique from other study abroad opportunities. The interdisciplinary component of the program consists of collaboration between computer science students and Spanish students. “So my students are the tech students, they typically don’t speak Spanish,” Matheus said. “The Spanish students don’t really know a lot about technology, and the Dominican students don’t speak any English and don’t know anything about technology- so it appears messy, but it works.”

The service-learning component is the second element that sets the program apart. “We don’t teach them a traditional class, we do service learning, so we are working in the community, literally sitting on the floor with kids at a school,” Matheus said. “Our goal is to leave something behind that’s beneficial, that we’ve taught to the kids in the community.”

Riana Ramirez, a senior English major who participated in the Spanish side of the program was interested in the program because of its mission. “I  was really drawn into participating in a program that helped teach children in the Dominican Republic about technology, and it was also a great opportunity for me to practice my Spanish,” she said. “My family is also from the Dominican Republic, so I was really interested in being able to go back to my family’s country and make a difference.”

Every summer, at the end of each two-week program, the Dominican students participate in a competition to demonstrate the skills they’ve built upon throughout the week and celebrate what they’ve learned. “There are a lot of speeches, and there are people crying, in a good way,” Mattheus said. “It’s a nice culmination where you get to see the impact that you had on the students and their lives and the community that you’ve been working in on this last day.”

In addition to teaching the Dominican students about technology, the Marist students also have the opportunity to participate in excursions. Tyler Galske, a junior majoring in computer science described one of the excursions. “We went hiking up a mountain, and once you got a good sweat in, you jumped down into waterfalls and naturally made slides.” he said.

As with any study abroad experience, the Marist students were often faced with challenges. On one occasion, the school did not have internet, and the Marist students had to develop a new activity 20 minutes before the Dominican students arrived. “We weren’t going to let that ruin these kids’ days,” Galske said. “Because some of these kids walked miles to school for a camp that was completely optional, we can’t let them down." According to Galske, it was their quick thinking and good attitude that solved the problem.

Matheus noted that there will be a break from the program for summer 2018. According to Matheus they will be revamping and tweaking the program before offering it again the following year.

“Overall, it was an amazing experience,” Ramirez said. “Not just working with the kids but also being in such a beautiful country. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is able to go.”

Written by Nicole Benedetto '18