By Lam Lai ’16

Because of the established set of courses they must take, science and math majors can find it more difficult to study abroad than do students with other majors. However, it is definitely possible, as two Macalester students have recently shown.

In fall 2014, Lucas Gagnon ’16 (Ithaca, N.Y.) went on the Budapest Semester in Mathematics, seeking a challenge. “Hungary is famous for their mathematicians, and also for their very rigorous method of teaching mathematics,” says the math major and computer science minor.

In Budapest, Gagnon took advanced math classes on topics such as graph theory, power linear equation, and quantum informatics. The classes were taught in English by eminent Hungarian scholar-teachers, and ranged in difficulty from 300 level to graduate level classes.

Studying away is just as important and useful for STEM majors as for humanities and social science majors, Gagnon believes. “You gain exposure to a different culture of education. The Hungarian method of teaching math, for example, is well respected, but not in common practice in the U.S.” Because teaching math is essentially teaching people how to think, says Gagnon, the exposure to a different teaching method trains a student to think differently and critically about ways to solve a problem.

Outside of class, Gagnon enjoyed the culture and beauty of the Hungarian capital, spending his free time discovering cafés and seeing the city, even taking part in a food festival inside a historic castle.

Ariana Amini ’17 (St. Paul), a biology major, had an unforgettable experience in Madagascar with the SIT Madagascar: Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management program. In fall 2015 she traveled to the island nation east of Africa to take classes in biodiversity, natural resources, and research methodology, followed by a one-month independent research project.

During the program, Amini visited fishing and desert villages, conservation sites, and coastal forests, talking with local experts on resource management. She also spent a week in the rain forest studying the population density of lemurs. “These animals are elusive,” she says. “Once I spotted a lemur standing just two meters in front of me, and it made me speechless.”

In Madagascar, more than 90 percent of the wildlife is endemic to the island. “It humbled me to see species not found anywhere else in the world,” Amini says. “This is an experience that textbooks and labs cannot give you.”

Amini also witnessed how people in Madagascar, assisted by NGOs, are sustaining themselves through tourism rather than environmental exploitation. “It is heartwarming to see the pride in their eyes and their renewed appreciation for their beautiful island.”

As for studying away as a STEM major, Amini—who is also a member of the jazz a cappella group Off Kilter—says, “The experience has sociocultural elements integrated into it. Studying natural science in the context of people helped me to think about the bigger picture.”

April 25 2016

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