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San Cristobal Canyon Curriculum


Writing About New Interdisciplinary Curriculum, Educator Earns Doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University

Puerto Rican Department of Education Now Funding Technology-Rich School Environment at School Where Curriculum Was Developed

NEW YORK--The deepest canyon in Puerto Rico, which has been polluted by years of dumping from the surrounding towns, is the centerpiece of a model curriculum for interdisciplinary high school education--a model that has attracted the attention and special funding from the Puerto Rican Department of Education.

Ilia Laborde, who created the model while working with a group of 10th-graders, has earned her Doctor of Education degree in instructional design at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City by writing her dissertation on her San Cristobal Canyon curriculum.

Laborde's project has been so successful that the Puerto Rican Department of Education plans to create a technology-rich environment at the high school where she created the model, Bonifacio Sanchez High School in rural Aibonito.

Laborde will spend the coming academic year helping teachers and students at the school learn to use the technology, which will include several computers with Internet access and electonic mail, as well as video and audio capability.

"The teachers want the students to learn to use the technology too," Laborde explained, "because they know that teachers may forget some details but the kids won't forget."

Laborde created the San Cristobal curriculum by working with teachers of science, history, Spanish and English (a mathematics teacher has since joined the project).

Students learned about the geological history of San Cristobal, as well as the history of the towns surrounding the gorge. They also wrote stories and poems in Spanish about the Canyon.

They even communicated with high school students in Wallingford, Connecticut, over the Internet and told those students--in English--about the Canyon.

But, even though they read and wrote about the Canyon and saw pictures of the Canyon, they did not visit San Cristobal until relatively late in the school year.

That was part of Laborde's plan. "I didn't want them to see the Canyon until they were ready to see it," she explained.

Even though Aibonito is only about 15 minutes from the Canyon by automobile, most of the teenagers had never seen the Canyon up close until the day Laborde took them to San Cristobal.

"They were so excited," Laborde said, "and they came back with a renewed interest in the project."

The people in the towns surrounding San Cristobal Canyon have not fully appreciated the ecological value of the place. "The ultimate aim of the program is to get the community involved in safeguarding that ecology," Laborde said. "We wanted to get to the community through the high school students."

The teenagers certainly did what they could, including producing publications, with photographs, about the Canyon and other local projects.

In one piece, titled "Canon de Mi Alma" (Canyon of My Soul), one student wrote:

"Nature isn't perfect, if we are looking for our own perfection in it. But, yes, it is perfect, because it doesn't have a pattern. Each flower, each rock, each insect has its own magic."

Laborde hopes her educational model will be used by other schools, both in Puerto Rico and other locales. Teachers should be able to adapt the model to spark interest in local environmental issues and in that way "stimulate the construction of knowledge about environmental values and problems in a manner that strongly engages the learner and strengthens social learning skills."

San Cristobal Canyon was formed by a volcano. It is not only the deepest gorge in Puerto Rico but it is also the site of the highest waterfall. It is located in the central part of the island.

Laborde teaches communications and technology at the University of Puerto Rico, where she is also in charge of faculty-staff development in these areas at the College of General Studies. She has been at the university for 12 years.

She earned her undergraduate degree majoring in social science and biology at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. She also earned a master of arts degree in communication from Michigan State University.

Her dissertation at Teachers College was sponsored by Professor Robert P. Taylor and her doctoral committee was composed of Professors Robert O. McClintock, Warren Yasso and Gita Steiner-Khamsi.

Teachers College, a graduate school devoted to education across the lifespan and both in and out of the classroom, is an affiliate of Columbia University but retains its legal and financial independence. Some 4,500 students are currently enrolled, studying for both master's and doctoral degrees. In a 1996 survey conducted by the editors of U.S. News & World Report, Teachers College was ranked as the number-one graduate school of education in America.

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