Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Thailand becomes science students’ classroom

For liberal arts majors averse to beakers and test tubes, or for science scholars eager to get out of the lab, a different kind of science class takes students off campus. Way off campus.

For the past three years, Professor Lawrence Berliner, who chairs DU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has led students to Thailand, where they are immersed in a field experience that blends scientific disciplines with cultural exchange. 

From measuring the acidity of a wetland to meditating with Buddhist monks, students experience science in a way that’s far from Bunsen burners and periodic tables.

“It’s a lot of fun, it’s exciting, it’s the real world,” Berliner says. “It’s also a lot of work.”

The two-week winter interterm course satisfies a four-credit science requirement as students engage in daily lectures, field experiments, journal keeping and juggling the demands of travel. 

And because the course mixes science and non-science majors, Berliner says it’s designed to challenge both right-brain and left-brain thinkers. Science students might have to help a non-science partner grasp complicated concepts, while a non-science major can bring new perspectives and ways of solving problems. 

“The bottom line, for much of this course, is the cross-cultural experience,” Berliner says. “That’s the most important thing we’re doing, looking at another way of dealing with problems and questions affecting the world.”

“The lectures we had were more in depth, and you had more time than you would in a science class,” says Jana Haege, a sophomore pre-nursing student concentrating on biology.

As part of the trip, Haege spent a night inside a Buddhist monastery. There, she experienced meditation and observed the strict life of a monk, gaining an appreciating for the order’s view of the natural world. 

“I’ve never written up a lab report before,” says Malaika Fosnes, a political science major with a minor in international studies. “But my partner was a biology major, and we worked together, so it wasn’t too intimidating. I learned a lot about water pollution and the environment and chemistry and how we are creating some scary problems in the world.”

A theme throughout the course is the way humans affect their environment through their culture. For example, a major source of air pollution in Thailand is the traditional practice of cremating the dead.

The course looks at urban management of a large city, Bangkok, as well as the rural farming districts in northern Thailand. And at the end, students are responsible for turning in journals and detailed lab reports. 

Sara Newman, a 21-year-old double science major in her senior year, was so struck with the course in 2006 that she returned to Thailand on her own this past summer. She connected with a professor at a Thai university and studied the anthropology of Thai food while learning Thai customs. 

She returned to Berliner’s interterm project as a student teacher, lecturing on Thai etiquette and helping students adapt. 

“I absolutely fell in love with Thailand,” Newman says. “Everything is so radically different. It’s fascinating and vibrant, the smells, the people, the colors.”

Comments are closed.