CORVALLIS - The Oregon Department of Education will honor Oregon State University for a unique undergraduate course where students worked directly with farmers, migrant workers, educators, and others to learn more about multicultural issues surrounding agricultural labor in Oregon.

Dwaine Plaza, an assistant professor of sociology;, Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies; and Geoffrey Habron, a graduate student who worked as course facilitator and is now an assistant professor at Michigan State University, will be honored as Oregon Innovators in Education at a conference to be held Feb. 18-19 at OSU's CH2M HILL Alumni Center.

Of the 25 educators being recognized, Plaza, Habron and Gonzales-Berry are the only individuals involved in higher education. More than 100 educators were nominated. Winners will receive awards of up to $2,000 and will have a chance to share their findings with colleagues.

The class, "Cross-cultural Perspectives in Agricultural Labor: Learning Through Listening," focused on the learning process through social action research. Last March, 20 students spent five days in the town of Independence questioning farmers, church officials, housing officials, educators, health providers, migrant workers and labor union representatives to gain an understanding of the complexities of the issues and concerns of the stakeholders.

"We immersed the students in the issues surrounding farm labor," Plaza said. "For five days, they spent 10 to 14 hours a day interviewing, discussing and better understanding the positions of different stakeholders involved in farm labor issues."

For Chris Bowman of Bend, a senior in liberal arts, the class was one of the most intense of her college career.

"I learned a lot about group dynamics," she said. "I learned to listen to everyone and learned that everybody's opinion is valuable."

Gonzales-Berry said the goal of the class is to draw students from diverse backgrounds together to learn about cultural perspectives through listening, analysis, and collaboration. The learning takes place in an environment that blurs the traditional teacher-student and community-researcher relationships.

"The students take ownership of the class," Plaza said. "It's like a giant jigsaw puzzle. They have to work together to fit the pieces. They learn more than if they were simply to read a journal article or take notes at a traditional lecture."

Through intense listening, Gonzales-Berry said students gain an understanding of the complexities of the issues and concerns of the stakeholders. They then re-evaluate their understanding of the topic based on the feedback from the stakeholders. She said the procedure is complex, but it contributes to the understanding of issues presented from different social and cultural perspectives.

"This is a different way of learning," Bowman said. "By the end of the week, it felt like the class was a family. It was one of the hardest classes I've taken, but it was also one of the most rewarding."

Plaza said the OSU Interaction Program supplies a grant to help pay major costs associated with the class.

"Without the Interaction Program, we wouldn't have this class," Plaza said.

This year, Plaza said the class will focus on cross-cultural perspectives in education.

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Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, 541-737-5708