UCLA International Institute, June 18, 2017 — When UCLA students identify a need, they create a solution. Whether it concerns service in the community, gaining international experience or enhancing academic learning, you can count on Bruins to be innovative. In the case of the Global Development Lab (GDL) at UCLA, a group of students have combined all three into a unique learning experience about international development.
The results of the lab were on display on June 8, 2017, at Ackerman Student Union, when GDL hosted a reception and poster session where its undergraduate members described development projects that they themselves had designed this year. Their proposed projects addressed such problems as banking regulations that prevent private microfinance lending to poor farmers in Peru, persistent interruptions to the schooling of children in a Rio de Janeiro favela (slum), drug addiction rehabilitation for young women in New Delhi, impure water supply in a small Guatemalan village and a poorly conceived plan to encourage digital learning in Kenya.
From student dream to academic courses in two short years
Created in the 2015–16 academic year, the Global Development Lab offers students a chance to learn about international development and then apply that knowledge to a real-world problem in the developing world. It was founded last year by four students who had all both traveled or studied abroad and had direct experience in development or other international projects — some of which they themselves designed and secured funding for.
Two of those students, Joan Hanawi and David Joseph, graduated last year and two graduated this month: Noah Lizerbram (global studies major, entrepreneurship minor) and Jessa Culver (international development studies major, public health minor). Both Hanawi and Joseph attended the reception and poster event on June 8.
GDL is run by a student board, so each year the responsibility for leading the lab and meeting curriculum requirements is in the hands of two board co-executives. This year, those leaders were Noah and Jessa. Three additional board members — Julia Kresky, Isabel Havens and Vanesa Martín — were responsible for day-to-day operations.
“We started out as a campus student organization with the vision of becoming a for-credit course maybe four or five years down the line,” said Noah. “To our surprise, we gained a lot of support from the UCLA International Institute this year and just in our second year of running, we've already established our curriculum as an academic course that provides three units of credit. And next year, it will provide four units.”
Notes co-founder David Joseph, “Last year, GDL was still a club and I think that we were very much trying to execute off our original vision. I think what they've done is take that vision and work with UCLA and the community to build something that’s going to be here forever.” Added Joan Hanawi, “I can't tell you how many nights we had at my apartment or Noah's apartment, arguing about ideas, about what it should be, what it shouldn't be … and not just about what it would look like the first year, but what it was going to look like 50 years from now.
“One thing that we all talked about last year,” continued Hanawi, “is that we needed to institutionalize the program because we wanted the legitimacy, the credibility, the longevity. It's a process, so for them to have accomplished that within the second year — it’s amazing!”
Remarked Lizerbram, “The overall goal of the Lab is to provide a community for students to collaborate on projects critical to the alleviation of global poverty. And we do that in different ways. The first is providing a curriculum where students can learn both hard and soft skills related to actually doing development work on the ground.
“Because,” he explained, “the IDS major has wonderful courses for teaching development theory, but there's a not a lot to transition that theory into practice on campus right now…. [W]e wanted to provide students with opportunities to acquire a skill set, so that when they did on-the-ground work in the future, they'd actually be able to translate that theory.” The lab is also intended, he added, to encourage networking and career opportunities for its members.
This past academic year GDL recruited students in fall quarter (students must apply) and then offered one course in each of winter and spring quarters. The winter course, a speaker series, consisted of a series of workshops led by development professionals who taught students skills in needs assessment, project design, monitoring and evaluation and sustainability planning. Workshops were supplemented by readings and discussions, based on a curriculum.
Spring quarter was devoted to a research project in which students, either singly or in groups, applied what they had learned in the workshops to design a proposed poverty alleviation intervention to address a specific problem in a specific community. Each project design had to fulfill four core requirements: a community needs assessment (typically researched by contacting local organizations and government agencies in-country via email), a project design, an evaluation plan and a sustainability model.
“The curriculum was structured with the help of our partners in the International Institute, Gaby Solomon-Dorian, Professor Mike Lofchie — who is the instructor of record and advisor for the course — and additionally, Ruby Bell-Gam [UCLA librarian for African Studies and International Development Studies],” explains Noah. “Ruby has been phenomenal,” he adds. “We could not have done it without her — the resources that she provided were just top-notch.
“Ruby, Gaby, and Professor Lofchie — in addition to Sandy Valdivieso and Erika Anjum, who are counselors for the International Institute’s Academic Programs, were all were very crucial parts in turning this dream into a reality,” remarked Noah. “In addition, Design for America at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA helped us run simulations to help students to develop project design skills.”
Applied learning in action
The results of this year’s lab were incredibly impressive. Not only could GDL members professionally describe their proposed projects — and in the case of joint projects, effortlessly hand the narration role back and forth among themselves — they were able to describe their research and analysis, the political and other constraints to their proposed interventions, the anticipated parameters by which progress would be measured and their plans to make them sustainable. These Bruins are amazingly enthusiastic about GDL — several joined the lab as freshman and intend to continue as members until they graduate.
Two students, Dan Patel and Toffy Charupatanapongse, gave a presentation on a project that they developed this year for the “Race 4 Good” competition organized by the Linda Cruse Foundation. After learning about the three-week competition at GDL, they ended up winning a grant of US$ 5,000 with which they will help address the needs of a rural village in Nepal over the course of five years. Devastated by an earthquake of 2015, the village cannot meets its own food needs through subsistence agriculture and suffers consistent erosion problems due to annual monsoons.
“During the competition,” said Dan, “we had access to advisors and village leaders, so we go to ask them, ‘What's your number one priority? What problems do you want us to tackle?’ That was a really important aspect of the competition because we got access to them in order to really know the solutions we could come up with,” he explained. Their trip to Nepal involved meeting with academic experts in Katmandu and a four-day stay in the village itself, during which they realized some of their original development ideas would not work, while others elements were chosen on the spot as a result of consultations with residents and expert advisors.
Ultimately, explained Dan and Toffy, the project will introduce beekeeping into the village, together with marigold and bamboo cultivation, and fund the construction of a reservoir high in the mountains near the village’s primary water source. The new reservoir will allow water to be selectively drained into a lower, existing reservoir in order to provide residents a more consistent water flow in dry months.
Both students noted that working collaboratively with a local Nepalese development organization and advisors identified by the Cruse Foundation were great advantages, as the local organization would continue to work directly with the village long after they themselves had left. As Toffy explained, “When we were there, we brought a ‘bee man’ from Katmandu with us and he actually began the training in the village while we were there. He was teaching the villagers to construct the bee box and all the dimensions of it, and he will be returning to the village to give them more training.”
GDL welcomes students from across campus
Next academic year, the skills development and project research courses will be taught simultaneously in both winter and spring quarters. The change responds to the feedback of GDL members and will tighten the link between skills learning and skills application, while giving students more time to develop their project designs.
GDL, it should be stressed, is open to students from all majors. “The Lab is not just for international development studies (IDS) majors,” said Noah. “This year, we had people from all over campus: pre-med, math, statistics and a lot of environmental studies majors as well…. We really want to invite students from all over the university to engage in GDL,” he continued, “because IDS students have access to more resources, but many people who don't study IDS also want to consider careers in the development field and we want to provide them opportunities.”
GDL’s future plans remain ambitious. “I believe that some of students are planning on bringing the resources they created this year into summer internships,” said Noah. “But the dream is that a couple of years down the line, perhaps what we are doing now would become part of a larger, perhaps two-year, process of implementation.” For more information, students can contact GDL at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit its website.