From Trepidation to Fulfillment: My Fulbright Experience in Armenia

Richard Bieker, Professor of Economics at Delaware State University
2015-2016 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Armenia

Armenia, a former Soviet Republic, is a small landlocked country of about 3 million inhabitants.  It is bordered by Turkey on the west, Georgia on the north, Iran on the south and Azerbaijan on the east. During its long history it has survived invasions by the Romans, the Turks, the Persians, the Russians and the Mongols.  While present day Armenia contains some features of both eastern and western civilizations, its unique culture remains intact.  It has its own alphabet and language.

My primary interest in Armenia was as an economist and educator.  As an economist I was interested in examining some of the economic issues that Armenia, a small geographically isolated country, faced as it transitioned to a market based economy.  As an educator, I was interested in introducing a problem-based learning approach into the economics curriculum at American University of Armenia (AUA), my proposed host institution.  A Fulbright grant  for which I applied would provide me with the opportunity to pursue both of these interests.

 So, when I received word that I was awarded a Fulbright grant to that country I was elated.  However, despite my extensive research and planning, I must admit that I was still a bit anxious as I began my 5,562 mile-18 hour journey to Yerevan in January 2016. 

I could not have received a warmer welcome from the faculty and staff at my host institution, AUA, especially from the faculty and staff in the College of Business and Economics, as I began fulfilling the requirements of my grant: “Integrating Problem Based and Blended Learning into the University Economics Curriculum at American University of Armenia.” 

Faculty in the College of Business and Economics willingly gave of their time to provide suggestions for developing problem-based learning topics that they thought would be of interest to the AUA students.  In addition, they provided many suggestions for setting up my principles of microeconomics course using the problem-based learning format and for using the Moodle Learning Management System to support the course.  I am particularly grateful to Professor Knar Khachatryan, Chair of the undergraduate program in business, for her constant encouragement and support throughout my stay. And, I will always cherish the many hours of stimulating and enlightening discussions that I had with Professors Vahram Ghushchyan, Vardan Baghdasaryan, Gayane Barseghyan, Mikayel Tovmasyan and Aleksandr Grigoryan during our research seminars, faculty meetings and informal discussions. I believe that we all benefited immensely from this interaction. Certainly I learned so much from this very dedicated group of professors. Furthermore, I believe that all of us came away with a greater appreciation of the value of faculty collaboration in teaching and student-centered problem based-learning. Most importantly, some faculty at AUA will introduce problem-based learning into their classes during the next academic year. And I will also continue to make use of problem based learning.

But most of all, I will always cherish the time that I spent with the wonderful group of 25 students who were enrolled in my Principles of Microeconomics class. We covered all of the content that is typically covered in a Principles of Microeconomics course at an American University. However, I used a problem-based interactive method of instruction rather than the typical lecture method and some cases used in the class were based on the Armenian experience and developed specifically for the class. While I have used problem based learning for a number of years, this pedagogical approach was new to the students.  However, they eagerly embraced the interactive learning style embodied in this approach.  In addition to mastering the process skills embodied in problem based-learning, the students demonstrated that they mastered the content as measured by a standardized comprehensive final examination. Working with this group of students was one of the most productive and enjoyable experiences of my entire teaching career. I found them to be bright, hard-working, very eager to learn and especially open to new ideas and methods of learning. 

Fortunately, I expect my relationship with AUA to continue for a long time. I will continue to work with the faculty there to develop problem-based learning cases for use in the Principles of Economics classes at AUA. We also plan to make these cases available to other universities in Armenia. In addition, we plan to submit some of the cases for publication. At this time, one case entitled “Friend, Can You Spare a Kidney for Our Son Levon?” that was used in the Principles of Microeconomics class that I taught is in the process of being submitted to a Problem-Based Learning Clearinghouse for publication.

Finally, I am hopeful that my venture that was made possible by a Fulbright grant is but the beginning of a long relationship between my host and home institutions. During the forthcoming academic year I plan to work with the Dean of the College of Business at my home institution and the Dean of the College of Business and Economics at AUA to initiate a faculty and student exchange program. I feel quite certain that faculty and students at both institutions will benefit immensely from such faculty and student exchanges.