January 12, 2008 — Sometimes, researchers visiting other countries don't know what they don't know.
"We want to expose students to the idea that our way is not the only way of doing something," said Robert Swap, a research associate professor with the University of Virginia's Department of Environmental Sciences, who has conducted many research trips to South Africa. "Real-world problems know no disciplinary boundaries."
Swap, Carol Anne Spreen of U.Va.'s Curry School of Education and Clare Terni from U.Va.'s anthropology department brought 15 teachers and students from South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Brazil to participate in a January Term seminar, "The Ethics, Protocols and Practices of International Research."
During the class, 21 U.Va. graduate and undergraduate students worked in small groups with members of the delegation to design international research projects.
"If they are going to conduct research in the developing world, they need to be aware of the customs, norms and protocols of where they are going to be," said Joseph Francis, director of the Centre for Rural Development at the University of Venda in South Africa.
"The key is to build relationships, which takes time and trust," said O.G.S.O. Kgosidintsi, a water quality and geographic information systems specialist at the University of Botswana. "Students come over there with money and technology and don't realize that money and technology are not effective if there is no organization on the ground to work with them."
The teachers' visit was sponsored by the Southern Africa/Virginia Networks and Associations, which was developed by U.Va.'s Department of Environmental Sciences. SAVANA provides opportunities to participate in international initiatives in southern Africa to faculty and students from the schools of Engineering, Architecture, Nursing, Medicine and Education.
Some of the visitors have worked with Swap and his students in South Africa.
"We can share our experiences of projects that have already been done and we can talk about what worked and what did not," said Elias Ramarumo, a consultant for the Center for Positive Care, which works with people who are HIV-positive in Thohoyandou, South Africa.
Francis said by visiting the United States, the Africans have an opportunity to see the environment from which the researchers are coming. He said the cultures should examine each other and see what they can "intelligently borrow."
Several of the visitors were taken aback by what they viewed as U.S. insularity.
"I was amazed to the extent that student participants are confined to their own cocoons," Francis said.
Kgosidintsi said many people to whom he talked did not know where Botswana was or that it is an independent country.
"Just flipping the television channels, all you see is about the U.S. or U.S. interests," he said. "You don't see much from other regions of the world. The people here are aware of the world, but not well-informed."
Francis said they have had little time to themselves while they have been in the U.S. because their hosts have insisted on bringing them to many places and events. He said he saw his first arena-hosted basketball game at U.Va. and was impressed with how well the entire event was organized.
Three South African teachers — Selina Mbedzi, Selina Letshabane and Alex Mashamba, from Mashamba Primary School in Limpopo — will visit local public and private schools and have a week-long residency at Charlottesville's Venable Elementary School. They will work with the schools and Curry faculty to develop four primary school curriculum on global warming; water safety, health and nutrition; early literacy and English as a second language; and solar energy. These units will be completed by Curry graduate students and piloted in Charlottesville schools as part of a graduate spring course, "Fieldwork in International Education."
"This is some of how we get to know each other and continue to build and strengthen our relationship," Francis said.