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“There are many differences between Taiwanese education and American education. However, we shouldn’t just see the advantages of them and ignore the disadvantages. (Open Imagination) allows me to experience both of them. I should maintain the advantages and improve the bad situations. Learning is like rowing upstream; not to advance is to drop back.” — Jerry (Fu-Ming Liu)
Imagine a college music class where you can play an instrument you’ve really never seen or heard before.
Or a law class where you engage in a challenging conversation with the professor rather than taking notes from a lecture. Or a class in multiculturalism where you watch a documentary featuring faces that do not look like yours, telling candid stories of how their diversity impacts their lives.
For American students, this is what they expect from school.
But for a dozen high school students from Taiwan who recently visited Illinois as part of Open Imagination – a program sponsored by the Northern Illinois University College of Education and the Miaoli County Government – the up-close glimpse of U.S. education confirms NIU President Doug Baker’s conviction that higher education offers transformative opportunities for career success.
“Over here,” says Terry Borg, director of the college’s Office of External & Global Programs, “these students are noting a different way of learning. They are gaining an appreciation of a different pedagogy than what they’re used to.”
In Taiwan, Borg says, “the students come to school at 7 a.m. to clean the classrooms. There are no janitors. The students stay in that same classroom all day. The teachers change rooms, and it’s ‘sage-on-a-stage.’ It’s all lecture-oriented. The students are telling us, ‘We are so impressed seeing teachers facilitate our learning rather than telling us what we need to know.’ ”
He witnessed that eager enthusiasm for building knowledge – rather than accumulating it – while the Taiwanese visitors attended classes at NIU during the week of Sept. 26.
Some of Miaoli County’s brightest learned about the assessment of upper-extremity injuries in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Some learned about business markets and investing in the Department of Finance. Some studied conservation genetics in the Department of Biological Sciences.
And, of course, some were entertained by a rehearsal of School of Music Professor Liam Teague’s NIU Steelband. Some were gripped by College of Law Distinguished Teaching Professor David Taylor’s discussion of civil procedure.
“This was very eye-opening for them,” Borg says. “They come from a very homogenous society, and they were really able to see the multiple ethnicities in the United States.”
Cohen believes Open Imagination was tremendously valuable for the young visitors from the other side of the world.
“According to my own NIU students who were speaking to them, they experienced a classroom that was not teacher-centered but more student-centered. They were also able to understand that there are these hierarchal structures of injustice that exist in our society,” Cohen says.
“I have a student in my class who is from Tanzania, and she is able to make a lot of parallels between our society and her society back home,” he adds. “I’m hoping the students from Taiwan were able to make that connection as well.”
“I learned the so-called scientific thinking in Human Anatomy class as well. The teacher taught us that we have to find out the evidence to support your claims through the experiment. Apart from that, the teacher asked students to question whatever they want. The more you question, the more you learn.”
— Wilson (Yu-Hsuan Wu)
Now in its third year, Open Imagination 2016 began Sept. 4, when the Taiwanese teens and their two adult chaperones, Chloe and Rachel, arrived at O’Hare. All lived with host families from DeKalb High School for the first few weeks before moving to NIU’s Holmes Student Center hotel.
For their final five days, which concluded Sept. 30, NIU classrooms took over.
“Our professors really opened their doors to these kids,” Borg says, “and the week at NIU also gave our students the opportunity to engage globally.”
By the time the Taiwanese students “enrolled” in NIU classes, he adds, they’d already whetted their appetite for U.S. teaching and learning and had become accustomed to its collaborative style.
During a physics class at DHS, for example, the teacher explained the morning’s lesson on waves before separating the class into groups to experiment with the phenomenon of oscillation.
Afterward, he brought the students back to their seats for a discussion: What did they discover? Did those findings match their expectations? If not, why not?
High school Spanish teacher Elizabeth Gidaszewski admires the Taiwanese students for wanting to immerse themselves in an overseas adventure; spots in Open Imagination are open to only the best students with top grades and fluency in English.
One boy wanted to travel to DeKalb so badly that he applied behind his mother’s back to convince her that he was not only passionate about coming but qualified as well, says Gidaszewski, who helped NIU to find host families for the Taiwanese students.
“There’s a great desire on their part to come and to be able to see what life in the United States is like, and it’s a very big honor for them to make it. In all of Miaoli County, only 12 were chosen,” she says. “This is the experience of a lifetime, and one they’ll never forget for their whole lives.”
Gidaszewski, who is also the school’s area coordinator for foreign languages, is a fan of Open Imagination.
“It’s just wonderful for our kids, and for their kids, to see each other’s cultures and education systems,” Gidaszewski says. “They’re vastly different, and maybe it makes our kids value ours a little more.”
Local students got a taste of Taiwan when the visitors temporarily took over the teaching, presenting songs, photographs, stories of their culture and even a little Mandarin. (That sampling took on much greater proportions in March of this year, when a “reverse exchange” sent several DeKalb students to Taiwan for nine days.)
“The DeKalb High School students just absolutely love these presentations,” says Gail Hayenga, conference and event coordinator in the Office of External & Global Programs. “From beginning to end, they’re totally engaged.”
So are the teens from Taiwan.
Other activities involved visits to the Museum of Science and Industry, Millennium Park, the Willis Tower and Six Flags Great America. Their trips to Chicago also included a stop at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.
In DeKalb, they also found time for bowling in the Huskies Den as well as two football games, one the First National Challenge football game between DeKalb and Sycamore high schools and the other featuring Coach Rod Carey’s NIU Huskies (tailgate included!).
“It’s totally amazing! I’m very thankful for all of the people who helped us and gave us this opportunity to extremely broaden our horizon and acquire many valuable knowledge.”
– James (Chuen-Chuan Niu)
Borg, who has a say in selecting them for the trip, calls the group “extremely bright, highly motivated and very appreciative.”
Thousands of Taiwanese students take the initial test for Open Imagination consideration, he says. This fall’s group included eight seniors and four juniors.
“They view this as being a life-changing opportunity,” he says, “and they value it as such.”
“I’m amazed at how engaged the students are. They’re like sponges, absorbing everything,” she says. “They take in everything that’s happening around them, and they are very in tune to the fact that learning happens everywhere – not just in a classroom – and that it’s continuous.”
For some, that realization could mean their American journey is not over but perhaps resuming in four years or so.
“A few have expressed interest in grad school here,” Hayenga says. “A lot have said that they’re coming back to NIU, one way or another.”
“Most of the classmates I met in the U.S. have a clear goal of their future career. This reminded me of my dream, becoming a financial engineer. Studying in the U.S. for two weeks, broadening my horizons and meeting new friends … gives me more confidence to fulfill my dream.” — Stacy (Huan Wu)
— Mark McGowan, NIU Newsroom