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Barbados Field Study: Making the Caribbean the Classroom

Environmental Problems and Solutions in Small Island Developing States with Dr. Chris Metcalfe


This story is featured in the Fall 2016 edition of Showcase: The Experiential Learning IssueView the complete publication.

There is no question Aristotle was onto something when he wrote, in 350 BC: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Centuries later, the Greek philosopher’s words speak to the heart of the experiential learning model at Trent, and its central aim of challenging the way students think by immersing them in hands-on experiences related to their field of study.

Dr. Chris Metcalfe, director of Trent’s Institute for Watershed Science and a professor with the Trent School of the Environment, has fully embraced that approach. Now, via Environmental Problems and Solutions in Small Island Developing States, a new field course, he took that a huge step further by leading ten students to Barbados this fall. 

Adding a new edge to environmental education

“The experience of actually going to a location and talking to people who are affected by environmental concerns is a much more effective learning experience than reading about it in a book or a scholarly article,” says Professor Metcalfe, who adds that the course also has an online component with required readings and assignments.

Staying at the McGill University-operated Bellairs Research Institute near the Folkestone Marine Protected Area on the island’s southwestern shore, Trent students were exposed to unique environmental and climate change- related challenges common to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and how Barbadians are meeting those challenges. Barbados has been a leader in that area. Its 1994 Program of Action, which addresses island nations’ economic, environmental and social developmental vulnerabilities, remains the only internationally approved program endorsed by SIDS.

Turning academia into action

Alaine Spiwak, a fourth-year International Development and Political Studies student, made the trip. She believes the opportunity to observe and participate in development work in Barbados will re-affirm her passion for her studying and working in her chosen field.

“My trip to Barbados allowed me to learn about small island states, and the unique opportunities and struggles they face,” says Ms Spiwak, who is also president of the Trent Central Student Association.

“During the field course we learned what it means to be water scarce, and what kind of systems or programs are in place to ensure the people in Barbados have access to clean drinking water. We also had the opportunity to survey fish and coral species, and see first-hand the impact climate change has on aquatic life and the people of Barbados. This course has provided me with a great opportunity to shift from my usual academic research, to gathering and synthesizing my own research in the field.” 

Small class sizes, global scope

Ms. Spiwak adds the course speaks to why she chose to attend Trent in the first place for the wide variety of experiential learning opportunities available. Prof. Metcalfe says Ms. Spiwak and fellow students were not disappointed in terms of what they came away with.

“Canada has a historical connection with the Caribbean in terms of trade, tourism, immigration and cultural influences, so students should know about the region beyond it being a sun destination,” he says. “They may someday be involved in projects in this part of the world. Their experiences in this course will be beneficial in terms of preparing them for a career.”  

Meet fourth-year student Alaine Spiwak and learn more about the field course she took in Barbados in a short video.

Posted on Friday, January 6, 2017.

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