Teaching Digital Electronics in Nicaragua

Matt Vonk, Fulbright Alumni Ambassador
Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls
March - July 2010, Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Nicaragua

I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua in March of 2010.  It was the middle of the dry season and everything was dusty, dirty, and parched.  I had been to Nicaragua in 2006, so I should have known better, but for some reason the image of lush verdant tropical Central America was still buried in my subconscious.   Little did I know at the time how what I saw as this thirsty city would offer such rich fruit professionally, pedagogically, personally, and (most delightfully) … literally.

My Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program project was to teach Digital Electronics at UNI ( National University of Engineering) using a type of programmable chip called an Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA).  Although the technology had been around since the 1980s and was ubiquitous in the United States, the technology hadn’t

Students apply their learning in
the digital electronics lab.

seeped into the curriculum in Nicaragua.  As important as it was for me to teach my students about FPGAs, I felt that it was just as important (perhaps more important) to teach the other UNI professors.  So, the two weeks before classes started, I held a series of workshops for the other professors.  It was a great way to get to know the people that I was going to be working with that semester.

Although I had studied Spanish for years before going to teach in Latin America, I was still worried that it would be tough for me to teach at the university level in Spanish.  Yet, in the middle of my first day of class, two students got my attention by moving their hands up and down with their palms down while they slowly said, in unison and in English, “SLOW.”  Though I was afraid of how my imperfect abilities in Spanish would fare in the classroom, it ended up being the electronics concepts I was teaching that my students had to work to interpret and understand.

Since the class had a lab component the university provided me with three top-notch teaching assistants: Carlos, Jessica, and Luis.  My class had one lecture session with about 44 students and two lab sections with about 22 students each.  I was amazed at t

Although much of Nicaragua is scrubby dry forest, the lush cloud forest at higher elevations supports huge strangler figs…one of which, in turn, is supporting me!

he range of abilities in my group of students.  Normally when I teach this class at the University of Wisconsin River Falls (UWRF) it is just one class out of many, however, in Nicaragua it was my only class, so I could focus all of my energies on improving that single class.  The innovations that I implemented to that course during my Fulbright term not only helped the students at UNI but have continued to benefit UWRF to this day.  In fact, I’m currently working on a FPGA project that I hope will be published that is largely based on the work I did for my Fulbright.

Teaching in Latin America was one of the best experiences of my life, especially the way the experience forced me to grow and adapt.  In addition to the obvious challenges (living and working in a new location, being away from my family, having to function in a different language) there was the added cultural difference of being a physicist at an engineering university.  The challenges I faced in my semester in Nicaragua were substantial, but not impossible.

The national recognition provided by Fulbright has invigorated my professional work and has led to my success on other national fora (e.g., invited talks, grants, collaborations, etc.) During the spring of 2015, I spent a semester teaching in China through the Experience China program, and in the spring of 2017, I’ll be leading a group of students to seven locations in Europe through the International Travelling Classroom program.  So often, we only place ourselves in situations that are controlled, safe, comfortable, and familiar.  This grant pushed me personally, professionally, and even physically in ways that ended up revitalizing my attitude, my career and my relationships.