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Earth Institute director compares university curricula

| Thursday, September 11, 2014

As part of her visit to Notre Dame, senior director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University Sara Sievers gave another lecture on Thursday night in conjunction with the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. The lecture, titled “What Contributions Can Universities Make to the Practice of International Development?” focused largely on her experience designing university curriculum.

Sievers specifically spoke about Notre Dame’s planned Keough School of Global Affairs, which will contribute to advancement in the developing world. The Keough School — the first new school at the University in 97 years — is set to open in 2017.

“It’s really a pleasure and quite literally an inspiration to be here,” Sievers said. “I think it’s tremendously exciting. It’s not every day of the week that a university starts a new school.

Sievers served as founding executive director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development, and has worked extensively in the developing world as a Foreign Service officer during her tenure at the Gates Foundation. For the last 10 years, she has worked at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Initially, Sievers’ talk focused on curriculum used at both Harvard and Columbia.

“We’ve tried to build a tripartite model of learning, integrating academic degree programs and teaching, research programs and field work,” she said.

Part of the Earth Institute’s work focuses on what Sievers described as “peer-to-peer partnerships.” Through Global Classroom projects at Columbia, students all over the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America, have been able to take classes taught at the Columbia through lectures posted online and online discussion sections. Harvard participates in the edX program, which offers a similar experience.

Sievers said this was significant because, of the top-10 universities in Africa, none of them made the top 300 globally — mostly because education funding in the developing world was pushed toward primary and secondary education instead of tertiary education.

Sievers said the goal of international development is to empower people in developing countries with the tools and skills to manage on their own.

“We’ve done the knowledge transfer to work ourselves out of a job, which is a pleasure,” Sievers said of one particular project in which she was contracted to the Nigerian government to do technical backstopping.

“International development is inherently interdisciplinary. An interdisciplinary method is the only way to approach a problem like this,” she said. “At the Earth Institute, we have ten degrees that we have adapted with other departments … earth and science, earth and journalism, and several others.

“Technical skills have been very helpful for our students, in fact we’ve probably focused too much on the quantitative. When you’re actually out practicing development, there need to be tools and skills that you have that are more qualitative.”

“Right now, there is more demand for space in these programs than we are able to supply. The country and the world need more programs like this,” Sievers said. “And there are jobs for these students, and our students are getting jobs.”

Sievers said that in many universities she has worked with, “we have to cajole the university president into doing this weird thing as opposed to what we should be doing, which is research. My understanding is that would not be the case [at Notre Dame].

“The Catholic Church is basically unparalleled in terms of service to the poor. I was astounded by how many people on the ground in these countries were Catholics, not necessarily peers but nuns and priests and missionaries. It’s my opinion that because of that, you will be able to be more effective more quickly.”

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About Margaret Hynds

Margaret is a senior Political Science major and the former Editor-in-Chief of The Observer. She hails from Washington, D.C., and is a former Phox of Pangborn Hall. Follow Margaret on Twitter @MargaretHynds

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