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Woolston teaches, learns in South Africa

A fun-loving man whose cheery smile and friendly welcome put visitors to his office in Engineering Hall immediately at ease, Donald C. Woolston loves meeting people. He also loves helping them, and he daily combines those traits in his job as assistant dean of pre-engineering, where his office is responsible for advising and orienting some 1,200 new engineering undergraduates each year.

Earlier this year, however, his love for meeting and helping people took him more than 12,000 miles from the UW to the southernmost tip of Africa: From February through June he lived and worked at the University of Cape Town (UCT), a 150-year-old university in the emerging nation of South Africa.

Woolston in Africa

South Africa is a lush, mountainous country bordered by water on three sides. Here, a view from Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, that looks across an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean to Table Mountain. (large image)

In 1966, the last time Woolston visited South Africa, he was a foreign exchange student. This trip-a trip made possible by a grant from Rotary International-he returned as an educator at UCT.

Woolston found the Rotary grant for teachers to serve in developing countries through a Web-based network of scientists and their institutions called Community of Science. The grant, coupled with funding from a campus academic staff development grant, enabled him to turn the service experience he'd contemplated into a reality. "My interest was in going to South Africa," he says. "The question was how was I going to make it happen."

The UCT Centre for Research in Engineering Education hosted Woolston during his stay. Although he was the first in the Rotary program to work at UCT, he felt right at home. "To meet people like you never met before is a wonderful opportunity," says Woolston. He participated in university social activities and worked out at the health and racquet club several times a week. He volunteered with Rotary community service projects and spoke to Rotary clubs about differences in higher education between South Africa and the United States. And on weekends he and his wife toured the country, visited historic sites and browsed handmade crafts at flea markets.

Woolston also spent lots of time trying to become familiar with the UCT campus, and as a natural advisor, he struggled when students asked him questions he couldn't answer. "My job here [at UW-Madison] is to know answers to help students out," he says. "At UCT I didn't know anything-unless it had to do with the classes I taught."

What he lacked in the advising department he made up for in teaching. He helped teach a five-week introduction to studying engineering module for new students; gave professional communications seminars for staff on how to teach report writing; and taught a thesis-writing course for seniors in chemical, civil and mechanical engineering. The seniors thought the class was wonderful, and even laughed at his American jokes. "I like to teach and I'm glad I was appreciated," he says.

Woolston computer class

Woolston taught several courses, including a module about how to use computers, to University of Cape Town students. Before the course, some of his students had never seen a computer. (large image)

He also taught a using computers module. "About one-fifth of the students had no computer experience," he says, noting that many never had even seen a computer, in part because South Africa is so diverse and students' previous access to technology-even telephones-varies widely. "You realize by going to a different country that we live in an affluent society," he says. "We take things for granted."

Still, the students looked and acted like students from any university. "The 18-year-olds were a little less prepared than our 18-year-olds in terms of what they knew," he reflects, "but they made up for it through their eagerness to learn."

UCT students also are more ethnically diverse, he says, and sometimes that diversity created communication barriers. South Africa has 11 official languages, a testament to its many cultural and ethnic influences. While every student spoke English, language was a barrier for many disadvantaged students. "The hard part is they know how to speak English on the street, but when they get to the university, they don't know the right way to communicate," Woolston explains.

Nonetheless, he discovered that both UCT students and educators are very positive about their educational experience. Rather than dwelling on the students' deficiencies, educators at UCT are taking steps to make positive things happen. "They never said, 'We can't do this,'" he says. "There's this incredible optimism I'm going to work hard to retain in my work at UW-Madison."

And though he spent the semester teaching engineering, he may have learned more than he taught. "I developed a new enthusiasm for engineering education," says Woolston. "I saw students achieving amazing things coming from truly disadvantaged backgrounds-students who attended high schools with broken windows and no telephones, let alone computers. Here we should have the resources and infrastructure to help any student achieve their goals."