Haiti’s academic community well knows that to improve its critical agricultural sector Haiti needs to upgrade its institutions of higher education and to train more agricultural professionals in modern research and teaching techniques.
But bringing about meaningful changes in higher education – in Haiti or in any country for that matter – requires administrative leadership committed to implement new policies and the willingness of faculty to use new knowledge and skills to improve teaching.
Filling this need is why leaders at seven agricultural colleges across Haiti partnered with the Feed the Future Haiti Appui à la Reserche et au Développement Agricole (AREA) project on an innovative higher education program to better prepare the next generation of university students who can improve Haiti’s agricultural sector.
Faculty Development Academy
One component of the initiative – called the Faculty Development Academy – introduced instructors at Haiti’s agricultural colleges to state-of-the-art practices proven to improve teaching and student learning. Using a “train-the-trainers” model, more than 200 instructors participated in an intensive academy, where they learned everything from the latest pedagogical thinking to collecting and analyzing research data.
“It’s really, really needed, and the professors are very excited,” Arsène Similien said of the higher education improvement program. Similien, a professor and dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the American University of the Caribbean (AUC), said the program sparked changes in the way he and many of his fellow professors prepare for classes, write syllabi, instruct students and grade their work.
Emerson Louis, a professor at Université d’Etat d’Haïti campus at Limonade, said the academy gave him the support he needed to strengthen his natural resources and project management courses and to improve his teaching methods, such as making his classes more interactive. “I love teaching and I like to improve my capacity to teach. That’s why I participated in the Faculty Development Academy,” Louis said.
Louis and Similien are among a handful of leaders selected to serve as “master trainers” to train their colleagues. First, for more than a year, they participated in a series of workshops, in Haiti and in the United States, where they observed classrooms at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and studied ways to incorporate more effective teaching methods. Then, they held sessions with professors at their universities to teach them what they learned.
Explaining the importance of the program, Absalon Pierre, Ph.D., AREA’s human and institutional capacity development specialist, said professors are hired for their technical knowledge not necessarily how well they teach. Yet teaching is a science, with its own techniques that professors need to master.
Leaders of the program cautioned that not all professors have yet bought into the program, noting the reluctance of some veteran educators to revamp methods they’ve always used, like emphasizing classroom lectures and grading students strictly on their ability to memorize content for exams. But the master trainers are confident that strides are being made and they will continue as colleges tailor their own programs to fit their needs and several now require all faculty to participate in professional development. Surveyed instructors who participated said they not only gained in their understanding of teaching and learning but from what serves as a forum where they can share best practices with each other. “Peer-to-peer sharing about good practices in teaching is invaluable,” Pierre said.
More higher education improvements
Other important initiatives of AREA’s higher education improvement program include equipping university laboratories with high-powered microscopes and other scientific equipment and training scholars in the latest research and lab techniques being used in the United States and around the world. AREA provided more than 30 awards of up to $4,000 each to researchers at universities and research centers for much-needed supplies and equipment, including devices to measure soil, water and temperature; insect collection tools; and clinometers used to measure the slope of soil. AREA also awarded a total of nearly $50,000 to three teams at the State University of Haiti’s Faculty of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine (FAMV) to fund research projects to examine important aspects of Haitian agriculture.
FAMV, Haiti’s flagship agricultural college, developed a special four-year collaboration with AREA to improve a diagnostic field practicum that the college requires all of its advanced students to take. Over these years, more than 300 undergraduates have participated in the course, which requires them to leave the classroom for roughly 10 days and interact directly with farmers to explore how to improve their farms. AREA researchers surveyed faculty and students before making recommendations, helped FAMV’s educators to incorporate new innovations and tools such as GPS devices, and provided fresh content like a primer on research ethics and how farmers can manage the effects of climate change and improve soil fertility.
A final key piece of AREA’s higher education improvement program is to provide scholarships to 25 Haitian scholars to earn Master of Science degrees at the University of Florida and Louisiana State University in virtually every agricultural discipline, from horticulture and entomology to plant breeding and agricultural engineering. Most of the students have returned to Haiti and are applying what they learned – and several have been hired as instructors to teach undergraduates.
FAMV Dean Jocelyn Louissaint said FAMV and other agriculture colleges have plenty of reasons to continue to improve instruction and student learning. Haiti critically needs a new generation of skilled professionals who can help rebuild of the economy and tackle issues plaguing the agriculture sector such as soil erosion, managing pests and protecting the environment.
“We can’t hope to address these things without improving our teaching and learning,” he said.