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Chieftain reporter J.P. Moore

SOCORRO, N.M., Aug. 3, 2000 -- Water quality studies, schools, and food were on the agenda for a group of New Mexico educators, including five from Socorro schools, on a recent trip to China. The trip, "Chinese Area Studies in Water Law and Quality: An Intercultural Perspective," was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hayes Group Project Abroad Program and was coordinated through New Mexico Tech by Vannetta Perry, Master of Science Teaching (MST) program director.

The group spent 32 days in the Hubei province touring, attending lectures on culture, and learning about issures surrounding the Three Gorges Dam, a water project under construction on the Yangtze River. Tech professors Baolin Deng and Clint Richardson also were part of the entourage. Chinese environmental law and water quality assessment procedures were the focus of the lectures, but the education went far beyond those topics.

"It was a unique experience," Perry said. "It was a rich mixture of cultures, science, and engineering. The international component of the MST program is very important to us--it brings the world home. And, teachers bring back experiences that will enrich their teaching and learning."

Perry said the group was busy the whole time, collecting samples and recording data. "The collaboration with China University of Geosciences will be very beneficial to them," she said.

"The program was not limited to water law and quality, though," said recent Tech graduate and Sarracino Middle School teacher Joleen Welborn . "We also toured schools in Wuhan and Yichang. The educational system was of interest to the teachers. Because the culture is so different, naturally there will also be a different sort of student."

Dena Odell, also a teacher at Sarracino, agreed: "Education seems to be highly valued in China. Students pay attention in class and are very respectful. I did not see any behavior or discipline problems. Parents spend a large percentage of their time and income to send their children to school."

"Kids can learn a lot more than we give them credit for," said Paula Rogahn, a teacher at Socorro's AIM High School. "We saw rote learning in China and it works. (Rote learning is a method involving repetition and memorization.) Of course, we probably saw the best--both teachers and students--but classrooms had between 48 and 60 children each. Teachers are very respectful, and they would have to be to handle that many students."

Applying what they experienced to their classrooms in Socorro won't be difficult, according to Rogahn. "I'll be teaching geography, and, of course, China will be first. And, Maria (Rogahn) and Dena are planning a workshop for our teachers on doing a teaching unit on China. Social studies, science, and math will all apply."

Experiencing the tastes of real Chinese food was an experience Paula relished. "Tastes like chicken, looks like chicken, but is not chicken. That's because it was tofu," she said. "As a matter of fact, we had a 22-course meal in which every item was tofu. What a gustatory experience, not unlike many main meals we enjoyed in which the entrees were varied, delicious, and always photogenic."

Interacting with the people was high on the list for Maria. "Throughout China, the people warmly welcomed our group," she said. "We encountered several 'Guardian Angels' along our adventure, who graciously and proudly introduced us to their country and culture. They were patient with our stumbling attempts at speaking Chinese and were eager to practice their English," Maria related.

The group returned to Socorro on July 2, ready for the coming school year.

"We have a wide range of experiences with which to supplement our teaching methods and to integrate into our respective curricula," Wellborn said. "Travel really broadens the mind and the result is an enlightened teacher. I feel very lucky to have participated in this project."

Other China travelers were Mike Torres from Socorro; Mendy Caviness and Patti Ann Ancell from Lovington; Bruce Lewis from Crownpoint; Keith Julian from the Albuquerque Academy; Mary Mitchell from Raton; and Martha Dyer from Durango, Colo.