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IU Kokomo professor fosters service learning through international travel

April 12, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. – Ten years. Ten overseas trips. More than 100 students.

As Karla Stouse plans her final Innovation Symposium three-week excursion to England in 2020, she reflects on why these experiences are so important for her students.

“Teaching is about fostering curiosity, and then giving students the chance to discover and encouraging them to discover. That’s exactly what the Innovation Symposium is,” Stouse says. “To me, there is no better teaching than that. It gives them responsibility for the world in which we live.

“Isn’t that what education is supposed to do?” asks the senior lecturer in English and humanities at Indiana University Kokomo. “They have time to think about what they would like to do to make their own impact in the world.” 

After leading literature and culture-based trips to Mexico, England, and Ireland, Stouse debuted the Innovation Symposium in 2008 to add a service learning component to travel. Students apply and are selected for one of 10 slots. It’s more than just sight-seeing tour, however, as each student creates a final project designed to solve a global issue on a local level by using information they gathered from meeting with philanthropists, as well as studying the environment and technology.

“We go to places where they see innovation in action,” she says, such as the Eden Project in which a china clay pit was transformed into “a magical garden fun land of environmental awareness.” Another point of interest is the Alexander Fleming Museum, which commemorates the discoverer of penicillin.

“Our students get to go see the landmarks, but they also meet the people, and work with them,” says Stouse. “They sit and eat among the people, they have conversations with them, they get to see how the world views Americans. They try that food they aren’t sure what it is. That’s my favorite part, to see students step beyond their comfort zones and try a new thing.”

Stouse was one of the pioneers of overseas travel at IU Kokomo, leading her first class to Mexico in 2003. She knew she was on to something the very first day of that trip. 

“We were arriving at our hotel and a student, who had never been out of Indiana, turned to me and said, ‘Karla, is that the ocean?’” she remembers. “That is why we take students abroad. It is the most transformative learning I have seen.”

It also makes a difference in the students’ overall perspective on life.

“Students who go on international trips come back with more confidence, and that leads them to all kinds of campus opportunities,” she continues, “There’s a direct impact. Many students have translated that impact into their jobs, the campus, and local community activities. It just keeps snowballing. It’s wonderful to be part of that ride.”

As she prepares to hand over the Innovation Symposium to new leadership, she hopes her work inspires other faculty to plan similar overseas trips. Her dream is for every IU Kokomo school and department to have its own version, and that at least 10 percent of students on this campus will travel each year.

“It’s a huge goal,” she admits. “It would transform the campus tremendously. You get to do an experiential activity and you get to learn by doing. I believe it is something that will make us truly distinctive as a campus. For the personal benefit for everyone who gets to go, there’s nothing better. It would be the best gift I could leave the university.”

Seeing the program evolve demonstrates one of the important parts of project planning she’s emphasized to her students.

“One of the things we’ve talked when students are building their projects is, the only way it can have long-term success is when the owner can come to someone else and say, ‘Take over my baby,’” Stouse said. “If you don’t pass it on, it won’t last any longer than your own interest or you own lifetime. You have to build it so someone can take it forward.”

The 2020 trip is included in IU’s Grand Expedition, a series of trips scheduled in June and July to celebrate and recognize IU’s pioneering and continued leadership in overseas study. It will be open to students from all IU campuses.

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 04/12/2019