New Mexico State University faculty are sharing their expertise globally to reform education in Ecuador, a small country in northwest South America.
Cornell H. Menking, NMSU associate provost for international and border programs, is leading the initiative. He and his wife, Mona, an Ecuadorean citizen who currently works for Kansas State University, lived and worked in Ecuador for seven years from 2001-2008. The Menkings’ relationships in Ecuador have fostered a prospering affiliation between NMSU and the Ecuadorean government.
The endeavor began in early 2013 when NMSU hosted a program called Go Teacher, which the Ecuadorean government funded to improve English education in the country’s schools. NMSU hosted 50 Ecuadorean teachers, who lived and studied for seven months in Las Cruces, to improve their English language fluency and increase their knowledge of current English language teaching methodology.
Kansas State is the primary institution leading the Go Teacher program. NMSU was one of three U.S. universities selected to assist with the program. NMSU is currently hosting its third cohort of Ecuadorean teachers.
“Improving the quality of public school English teachers in the country of Ecuador is the goal of the project,” Menking said. “As a spinoff of that work and our contacts, we were approached about offering a similar program for people in the hospitality industry in a province called Imbabura for a project called Vamos Yachay.
Yachay: City of Knowledge, is located near Ibarra, the capital of a rural province called Imbabura. The project is part of a multi-billion dollar campaign in the country to build public universities and K-12 schools.
“They are building a massive technological university that combines government, academic and private industry,” Menking said. “Their vision is that it will someday become something like the Silicon Valley of the region. It’s a very ambitious project. It’s part of a larger investment in education on the part of the Ecuadorean president (Rafael Correa).”
The Ecuadorean government acquired an entire valley to create a residential campus and NMSU was approached about training locals to work in the hospitality industry.
“Without the infrastructure to receive people they are going to have trouble getting it off the ground,” he said. “They need hotels, restaurants, etc. to support people that will be coming in. We proposed and we won a contract to do a pilot project that will prepare 14 high school graduates that will be here on April 24.”
The group will be in Las Cruces for eight months with six months of intensive English, including English for tourist purposes, and two months of hotel, restaurant and tourism management specific training from the NMSU School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management department.
In January, Menking led a small NMSU delegation including Executive Vice President and Provost Daniel J. Howard, HRTM director Janet Green and Office of Education Abroad Director Kristian Chervenock to Ecuador to sign contracts for the project. Howard signed agreements with the Yachay Corp. and the Ecuadorean Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (SENESCYT).
During the visit, NMSU also was invited to be part of a think tank to evaluate the curriculum of the new university.
“We were very fortunate to be involved in the think tank,” Menking said. “They have the curriculum as Cal Tech provided it, but they don’t have the faculty, all they have is the conceptual framework for curriculum in all technical areas.”
Julio Martinez, chemical engineering assistant professor, and Enrico Pontelli, computer science department head and NMSU Regents Professor, traveled to Ecuador in mid-February to participate in a think tank as consultants to provide feedback and ideas on the curriculum.
“The Yachay project is by far the most ambitious initiative that I’ve had the chance to interact with. The goal of creating a mega-university along with a surrounding urban area is amazing,” Pontelli said. “The scientific focus that the developers intend to give to Yachay is cutting edge.
“The team I was part of focused on the degree programs in computer science and software engineering, and our recommendation was to greatly simplify the first two years of the curricula, which we deemed way too challenging.”
“It has been very gratifying to contribute with the Yachay project,” Martinez said. “There are only a handful of places in the world that are building from the ground a city of knowledge, and NMSU is one of the contributors to that project.
“For an assistant professor like me, these opportunities are very formative because programs are usually completely running and only minor adjustments are required,” he said. “I believe that the people involved in the Yachay project are very motivated and make every effort to complete this project. However, I think that they still need to be oriented, and they should come out with a road map with realistic and achievable objectives.”
Menking said Correa, who he knows personally, is making the enormous investment in education because he wants Ecuador to impact the world’s academic knowledge. Currently, the country has very little publishing and research.
“His goal is to make Ecuador a country that contributes its fair share to the new scientific knowledge generated in the world, and I just think that’s incredibly noble and ambitious,” he said. “Nobody has ever invested in education like this in the country of Ecuador. It’s very significant.
“We have lots cooking in Ecuador thanks to these projects and our friendships down there,” Menking said.