Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 110-116
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Engaged Learning and Change through Undergraduate
Research: A Case Study of the Heart of Gold
Community Empowerment Project
David William Robinson1, J. Laureen St yles2, Nichola Evernden1, Kassandra Kirkham1
1Tourism and Recreation De p artment, Vancouver Island University, N a na i mo, Canada
2Justice Institute of British Columbia, New Westminster, Canada
Received April 9th, 2013; revised May 10th, 2013; accepted May 17th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 David William Robinson et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the origina l w o rk is properly cited.
The focus of this paper is to describe a best-practice undergraduate research-involved case study of the
Heart of Gold Rural Community Empowerment Project (HG) that has demonstrated significant gains in
social and economic capital over the last ten years. The HG is an international community-university re-
search alliance between the Farm and Agro-tourism Association of Los Santos (FAALS) cooperative in
Costa Rica and Vancouver Island University (VIU) in Canada that uses co-operative inquiry methods for
effective sharing of local knowledge, and knowledge exchange and mobilization to meet small-scale
farming community needs. Overall the project focuses on strengthening small-scale farming livelihood
security through innovative diversification of farm product (direct-trade organic-in-the shade coffee), and
agro- and eco-tourism business development that helps to stabilize small-scale farming economies. More
specifically, the project seeks to create new modalities of research collaborations involving organizations
not often associated with research on international development; to influence policy and practice through
researchers sharing knowledge with community associations about development challenges; and, to im-
prove learning capacity by creating educational platforms for identifying solutions to livelihood threats.
The provision of planning and research support for agricultural cooperatives can be critically important
since it equips communities to confront and deal with socio-economic and environmental change, and to
create community resilience. It is intended that the HG will generate knowledge and information that has
applicability for other rural communities in developing countries facing similar social and economic
challenges, and demonstrate the value of community-university alliances that involve undergraduates in
action research.
Keywords: Farm Security; Co-Operative Inquiry; Action Research; Undergraduate Research; Heart of
Gold Project; Case Study
I want to live, I want to give … I crossed the ocean for a
Heart of Gold. (Neil Young)
In this paper, we describe a best-practice undergraduate re-
search-involved case study of the Heart of Gold Rural Com-
munity Empowerment Project (HG) that has demonstrated sig-
nificant gains in social and economic capital since its inception
in 2004. The HG is an international community-university re-
search alliance between the Farm and Agro-tourism Associa-
tion of Los Santos (FAALS) cooperative in Costa Rica and
Vancouver Island University (VIU) in Canada. Action research
through co-operative inquiry methods is used for effective un-
covering and sharing of local knowledge, knowledge exchange,
and knowledge mobilization to meet small-scale farming com-
munity needs. There is emphasis on placing undergraduate
students on two to five month research internship positions in
Los Santos communities to support the strengthening of small-
scale farming livelihood security. The project seeks to create
new modalities of research collaborations involving organiza-
tions not often associated with research on international devel-
opment; to influence policy and practice through researchers
sharing knowledge with community associations about devel-
opment challenges; to support public awareness of development
projects that seek to impact policy; and, to improve learning
capacity by creating educational platforms for identifying solu-
tions to livelihood threats. To date over 40 undergraduate re-
search interns have been involved in the alliance project. Re-
search interns learn and apply approaches to research that have
significance in the global context, are relationship-based and
focus on empowerment through awareness and education. This
paper is co-authored with two undergraduate research interns1.
Specifically with this alliance, assumptions are that the plan-
ning and research support for agricultural cooperatives can be
critically important since it equips communities to confront and
deal with socio-economic and environmental change, and to
1The Heart of Gold 2012-20 13 St ude nt B log is ava ila ble at; the project website is at
create community resilience. Additionally, research and plan-
ning support within a participatory paradigm (Heron & Reason,
1997) can help improve the effectiveness of collaboration and
exchange processes within cooperatives and improve the con-
tribution of such organizations to the livelihood security of their
members and to the human development of the societies in
which they live. It is intended that the HG will generate
knowledge and information that has applicability for other rural
communities in developing countries facing similar social eq-
uity challenges and local economic restructuring as well as
extend our understanding of effective undergraduate research
Research Approaches for Global Realities
This section introduces approaches to undergraduate research
and the larger global conte xt of the HG, and relates t hese to the
use of particular research methodologies and methods.
Undergraduate Research Engagement
As described in Healey and Jenkins (2009) there are different
ways that students may be introduced to research and inquiry.
They describe two axes to classify research engagement ac-
cording to: 1) the extent to which undergraduates are primarily
the audience or participants, and 2) the extent to which the re-
search approach emphasizes either research content or research
processes. These authors go on to identify four main ways of
engaging undergraduates with research and inquiry: research-
led engagement involves learning about current research in a
given discipline; research-oriented engagement involves de-
veloping research skills and techniques; research-based en-
gagement involves undertaking research and inquiry; and, re-
search-tutored engagement involves participation in research
discussions (p. 7).
While all four approaches are acknowledged as valid and
valuable, “… in much of higher education relatively too much
teaching and learning is in the bottom half of the model, and …
most students would benefit from spending more time in the
top half” (Healey & Jenkins, 2009: p. 8). The Heart of Gold
project, being primarily field-based and action-oriented, is “top
half” driven and also challenges the more traditional ideas of
what research is and who legitimately conducts research. The
use of co-operative inquiry methods (Heron & Reason, 1997) in
the project gives emphasis to students being full and active
participants in a process of doing research with people rather
than on people (Reason, 1999). The project also seeks to in-
volve students in all four quadrants of research engagement
(Healey & Jenkins, 2009) during their pre-field research train-
ing, activities while in the field, and during post-research de-
briefings. The manner in which the four ways are linked is
critical in the design of effective undergraduate research ex-
periences. As Healey and Jenkins (2009: p. 7) argue, and as is
valued in this research, undergraduate-involved research swit-
ches the focus to the student as learner and potential producer
of knowledge. Passionate academic support, leadership, and
mentorship from faculty researchers are critical to effective
student involvement. In field settings, the student-professor
relationship is also inevitably changed, and this may also help
mitigate some of the identified gaps between research and tea-
The means of involving students in research must also be
appropriate to the geographic, cultural, and human dimension
contexts of the research. International development field re-
search provides a vehicle for the sharing of global realities, and
potentially illuminating the mutual learning benefits of a global
North-South research alliance that successfully synergizes the
seemingly disparate lives of global South rural poor and global
North researchers (Kindon, 2007; Van Manaen, 1990). Re-
search interns on the project are generally individuals either
well attuned to global North-South realities or clearly keen to
learn and desiring to make a contribution to global equity
through applied research. In many regards, the interns are
“pioneer leaders” (Wheatley, 2002a: para 1) in the realm of
undergraduate research and represent a parallel to the farming
pioneer leaders the project seeks to link and unite in rural Los
The Research Context: Global Farming Security and
Policy development strategies of the past decades in many
central American countries have often marginalized the poor,
encouraged corporate farming, and neglected the needs and
potential of rural areas (Mansfield, 2005; Reynolds, 1996).
Globalization of corporate agriculture and mass tourism
threaten the livelihood security of many small-scale farming
communities in Central America. Poor households are espe-
cially vulnerable to unexpected events (e.g., illness, a poor
harvest, loss of a local purchaser) that threaten both farm pro-
duction and land ownership (Borras, Kay, Gomez, & Wilkinson,
2012; Kugelman & Levenstein, 2012).
Small-scale democratically managed cooperatives that share
land-based resources have the potential to reduce rural poverty
and landlessness, to increase the political viability of land re-
form, and to contribute to sustainable rural development that
embraces environmental stewardship and human development
(Mansfield, 2005). Cooperatives also provide for citizen par-
ticipation that is a vehicle for balancing power in decision
making, empowering those affected by decisions, and permit-
ting some control over local resources (Morford, Robinson,
Mazzoni, Corbett, & Schaiberger, 2005). Cooperative networks
can also foster empowerment for its members; empowerment
being a long-term process (Wheatley, 2002a) that requires edu-
cation and training platforms, gender equity processes, and the
fostering of leadership succession.
Small-scale, locally owned and operated agro- and eco-tour-
ism businesses are farming diversification tools to balance the
physical and commercial orientation of tourism development
with the needs and goals of local farmers (Jamal & Getz, 1997;
Robinson &Twynam, 1997; Russell, 1994). Agro- and eco-
tourism as cooperative undertakings can also promote a better
understanding of the larger development context, promote the
formation of a common value base, increase recognition of
interdependence among stakeholders, and in these ways pro-
mote rural sustainability. Cooperatives pursuing farm based
tourism permit their members, as collaborative owners, to gain
full benefits from small-scale business developments while
permitting informal approaches to management that often meet
a variety of often overlapping business, relationship-based and
personal goals (Wang &Wall, 2005).
The Heart of Gold Empowerment Project
The HG was an outcome of an international undergraduate
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 111
field school to Costa Rica in 2004 that critically assessed rural
community development through small-scale, locally owned
and operated farming businesses. Home-stay programs led to an
affiliation with social equity activists in the Los Santos Region
of central Costa Rica. The project grew out of a community
workshop on livelihood security that was facilitated by faculty,
undergraduate students, and local pioneer leaders (Wheatley,
2002a) from the farming communities of Santa Maria de Dota
and San Marcos in Los Santos. This region is a predominantly
corporate coffee farming area where communities struggle with
the challenge of rural poverty and related social and economic
challenges. Even though coffee is one of the most valuable
traded commodities in the world the dominant corporate coffee
production model creates poverty and social inequity through
economic disenfranchisement (e.g., it denies farmers access to
the value-added processing of coffee beans, and provides below
subsistence level income) and utilizes harmful environmental
practices on traditional plantations (e.g., forest wildlife habitat
destruction and chemical based farming that creates drinking
water contamination) (Pendergrast, 1999).
Supported by Costa Rican partners2 the alliance challenges
the conventional wisdom of prevailing thought and institutional
practices related to justice and power in farming economies in
Central America. Co-operative inquiry research (Heron & Rea-
son, 1997; Reason, 1999) supports community-driven initia-
tives focused on process improvements, helping current sys-
tems to work more effectively and more efficiently (Wheatley,
2002a), and ultimately contributing to enhanced community
resiliency. This is accomplished through the FAALS long-term
objectives of:
1) Strengthening small-scale farming livelihood security;
2) Protecting the Los Santos forest watershed;
3) Nurturing pioneer leaders and gender equity.
Methodology and Activities
The project’s research approaches are grounded in critical
social theory (e.g., Hanks, Dadds, Kumasi, Link, & Metro-Ro-
land, 2010) and driven by the lived experiences of FAALS
families and communities. Underpinning the project are nine
years of applying the tenets of co-operative inquiry approaches,
framed by the central concepts of communities of practice
(Wheatley, 2002a) and critical education (Friere, 1993). During
this span, we have witnessed that when people understand both
the forces impacting their livelihood security and how they
might change those forces, they become eager and rapid learn-
ers (Heron & Reason, 2012; Wheatley, 2002).
Co-Operative Inquiry Metho ds
Central to the project is research with people. Our co-opera-
tive inquiry methods (Heron & Reason, 1997; Reason, 1999)
and informed by Wheatley’s work in leadership and change
(1998, 2002b, 2006) have placed principal researchers, under-
graduate research interns, and FAALS families in the shared
roles of advising, resourcing, mutual learning, and engagement
in repetitive inquiry cycles of reflection and action. This meth-
odology and method (and the overall project) aim to empower
people at a deeper level through the process of constructing and
using their own knowledge: “primacy is given to transformative
inquiries that involve action, where people change their way of
being and doing and relating in their world” (Heron & Reason,
2012: para 4). Utilizing this method and holding the intention
of empowerment has created positive impacts not only on the
project’s Costa Rican farmers but also on researchers and re-
search interns.
Research teams are placed in the field for up to five months
each spring/summer; teams usually consist of one experienced
faculty researcher and two to four undergraduate research in-
terns. This core team may be supplemented by an additional
faculty person or a representative from one of our project part-
ners in Costa Rica. Research interns act as co-facilitators for all
workshops, conduct structured- and semi-structured interviews,
act as participant observers, and collate and gather data for the
creation of practical-oriented action reports for FAALS. Addi-
tionally, another important role for the research interns is
working with young children of the FAALS families (each
family has an average of six children). Interns often run parallel
age-appropriate play workshops employing mind-mapping and
art to tap into the views of the young stakeholders; in this way
children’s voices contribute to the community work and can
serve to motivate the member of FAALS, particularly those
who are parents. Each intern is given the opportunity to adopt
roles of increased responsibility as their experience in the field
and comfort level increases. Those returning for a second in-
ternship are similarly given the opportunity to take on more
senior project responsibilities (e.g., planning and facilitating
inquiry cycle workshops).
Research interns’ fieldwork is supported by training and
education through core program courses at their home univer-
sity in a variety of research and human dimension skills, in-
cluding communication with emphasis on cross-cultural com-
munication; diversity education; leadership models that fore-
ground shared and transformational leadership; qualitative re-
search methods; and participatory planning group techniques.
The co-operative inquiry methodological steps employed in
the HG are sequenced as follows:
1) Creating Awareness and Connecting Pioneer Leaders. In
the opening workshops, pioneer leaders are invited by a small
group of local hosts to meet to begin the process of defining
their community of practice focusing on clarifying the practices
and values that work to affirm and sustain their livelihood secu-
rity (Wheatley, 2002a). These workshops are designed to a)
connect pioneer leaders from across communities to create
general awareness of shared issues, b) identify the forces creat-
ing adverse livelihood security and c) uncover opportunities of
process and knowledge support from researchers. As an exam-
ple, the original gathering of 20 families in Santa Maria de Dota
from eight neighboring communities involved undergraduate
research interns facilitating small-group discussion and coordi-
nating viewpoints for the creation of an opening report for po-
tential HG activities. In these opening workshops the lead re-
searcher and interns also play a role in uncovering and high-
lighting the pre-existing strengths and knowledge of the
FAALS members as a first step towards empowerment.
2) Creating the Axis of Trust and Relationship. All work-
shops employ methods that emphasize critical relational prac-
tices: those of fostering and deepening relationships and trust
between all membe rs of the alliance (intra -community famil ies,
cross-communities families, researchers, research interns, non-
governmental organization (NGO) participants). On-going rela-
tionship and trust building are the central reasons for the suc-
2Earth University, Cartago University College, the Rainforest Alliance, and
Earthwatch Institute.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
cess of HG. Relationship building is consistently reinforced in
all workshops and group gatherings using shared learning and
“social mingling methods” (IAP2, 2012). A recent example of
this occurred in 2012 during a pilot tour of the eco-trail busi-
ness when 20 FAALS families gathered to engage in a review
and celebration of the project’s ninth year through sharing and
exchanging stories. Tellingly, relationships with homestay
families are also what are referred to most frequently during
post-experience debriefings conducted in Canada with research
interns. In Canada, interns also gain the opportunity to pay it
forward (Chang, Lin, & Chen, 2011) through fund-raising for
scholarships for FAALS family members to study at VIU, and
also by being mentors and peer-supporters for the FAALS stu-
dents during their study-abroad experience.
3) Creating Community of Practice Workshops. The group of
pioneer leaders (Wheatley, 2002a) and cooperative members
from various regional geographical locations are guided to de-
fine and name their community of practice by a) consolidating
their core values, and b) identifying the knowledge, skills and
experience they need to create change. As people exchange
ideas, new knowledge, skills, and competencies are also devel-
oped (Heron and Reason, 2012; Wheatley, 2002a). Inside this
community of practice, leaders and members creatively develop
new practices and feel supported in their pioneering work. Per-
haps the most significant role that research interns play in the
alliance is to facilitate a systematic process or a social architec-
ture (Galoppin, 2011) for the formation and continuation of the
community of practice. Since 2009, improved internet technol-
ogy in Costa Rica has immensely facilitated the co-operative
inquiry process through dedicated websites and on-line com-
munication and sharing. Young interns are also social media
savvy and contribute significantly to this platform that supports
the social architecture (Galoppin, 2011).
Technology, however, is only a supplement to intimate group
and face-to-face connections. FAALS’ communications and
technology leader (a young man from a very small rural com-
munity) and researcher interns have together developed multi-
ple ways for members to connect with one another including
face-to-face gatherings of members from six geographically
dispersed communities, publications specific to the community
of practice’s interests (e.g., reports on business improvement
and training manuals developed in 2012), exchanges of people
and resources (e.g., scholarships for study at VIU for FAALS
young adults, and pioneer leaders visiting VIU).
4) Resourcing the Community of Practice-Themed Critical
Educational Workshops. As the community of practice clarifies
(and re-clarifies over time) its purpose and practice, themed
workshops are introduced at a geographical mid-point host
community. For the researchers, the contribution is often
knowing what techniques and processes are available that could
work, or work well. Without this knowledge, the group risks
either reinventing the wheel, or latching onto methods that are
inappropriate or substandard. The purposes of themed work-
shops are a) education and training needed to strengthen lively-
hood security, and b) involvement of people in identifying so-
lutions and actions to implement change. Research interns share
a significant role in the design and delivery of these workshops.
Delivered collaboratively by NGO representatives, pioneer
leaders, and researchers and research interns, themed educa-
tional and training workshops (including on-site trials and
demonstrations) provide critical education to explore topics
identified in previous workshops, such as the creation of vi-
sioning objectives for the project; identifying learning and
technological support needs to implement actions; guide re-
quirements for trekking; mapping skills; and on-going and fre-
quent inquiry workshops for reflection on actions.
Themed workshops employ a variety of group interaction
and learning techniques for generating knowledge and also
deepening relationship and trust. Workshops focus on collabo-
rative learning and the gradual transference of mentoring and
teaching roles to FAALS leaders. A recent example is an in-
terns-facilitated world café that mingled and tapped the shared
knowledge of families from six villages that had hosted the first
pilot of the eco-trail tour on key delivery components (e.g.,
transportation, home-stay standards, guiding skill sets, activity
programming, budgeting, and risk management planning). This
information was then combined into an analysis report created
by four research interns who had acted as participant observers
during the pilot tour. The session generated critical learning for
FAALS to implement and evaluate in the next the eco-trail tour
5) Inquiry Cycles Workshops for Action Options and Col-
laborative Choices. Regularly pioneer leaders and researchers
assemble to share their practical and experiential data, and to
reconsider their original ideas, reflective of an emergent ap-
proach to change (Wheatley & Frieze, 2006). Such sessions
may lead to the reframing of objectives or ideas, or even in
some cases to their rejection and the posing new project ques-
tions and goals (Heron & Reason, 2012). For example, an
original objective established in 2004 (the creation of an out-
door experiential education center) was rejected four years later
in favor of developing the current home-stay based eco-tourism
trekking trail business that linked the member villages of
FAALS. Outcomes may decide that the next cycle of action
will focus on the same or on different aspects of the overall
inquiry. The group may also choose to amend its inquiry pro-
cedures such as forms of action and ways of gathering data, in
light of experience. Again, this is consistent with an emergent
approach fostering relevance and localized context in the
change process (Wheatley & Frieze, 2006). Following several
cycles of reflection on learning and actions, options are priori-
tized and then implemented.
6) Implementation. Implementation is about focused action
that has “impact on the ground” (Heron & Reason, 2012) for
FAALS, and consequently provides best-practice case studies
for similar rural communities to learn from. Implementation is
undertaken collaboratively by researchers and FAALS and is
led by an appointed local leader for each focused action. Fo-
cused actions to date have included: a) the implementation of a
direct trade organic-in-the-shade coffee business that began in
2005 and was marketed, promoted and implemented in western
Canada by research interns; b) the implementation of an agro-
tourism business in 2007 for which research interns designed
and constructed a walking trail with interpretation points for an
educational tour on one of the organic coffee farms; and c)
currently the implementation of the FAALS Eco-trail Tour
business linking six communities between Santa Maria de Dota
and the Pacific coast at Manuel Antonio for which research
interns have mapped the trails and generated various research
reports on for on the ground business implementation.
7) Monitoring and Evaluation. Continual monitoring and
evaluation is part of the cycling of reflection and action (Heron
& Reason, 2012) built into the six steps above. Ongoing as-
sessment allows for flexibility and adaptability as the activities
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 113
unfold and aspects change. All meetings and workshops have
intermittent question periods aimed at answering two key ques-
tions: “Are we undertaking activity that is good and right?” and
“How can we improve the way we are doing things?” Ongoing
cycles of inquiry also enhance the validity of this work. Addi-
tional validity procedures used during the inquiry cycles in-
clude the monitoring of “authentic collaboration” within the
alliance, the balance between “chaos and order” (Heron &
Reason, 2012: para 14), and discussions on the quality of re-
ciprocal support between the farmers and researchers. It is this
deep relational and experiential engagement that informs prac-
tical skills and new understandings emerging from the inquiry
that makes co-operative inquiry so very different from conven-
tional research. An example of this was an early workshop in
2007 to uncover local farmers and residents’ attitudes towards
agro- and ecotourism development. This included contextualiz-
ing the benefits and challenges of sustainable tourism planning
at a community level in Los Santos. Activities involved the
communities’ insistence on the valuing of nature into the myr-
iad of social, economic and environmental issues that may af-
fect planning, development and management when adding new
service-based agro- and eco-tourism activities to traditional
small-scale farming.
8) Illuminating and Interpreting the Community of Practice.
While knowledge transfer within the community of practice is a
critical undertaking, so is the transfer of a new paradigm of
leadership to a broader audience-of-influence (e.g., policy ad-
visors, academic institutions, NGOs, and embassies) and to
other communities of practice, particularly in their development
stage, in a manner that illuminates and interprets FAALS ex-
periences and stories (Wheatley & Frieze, 2006). The sharing
of stories and accomplishments is achieved in multiple ways.
For example, for knowledge mobilization and transfer within
the community of practice, pioneer leaders and family members
in 2012 engaged in what we call inquiry field-trips to each
other’s villages and households to observe, witness, and ex-
change ideas and critical learning through facilities dialogues.
For audiences-of-influence, methods have significantly em-
ployed young and vibrant undergraduate research interns and
young FAALS pioneer leaders to share the project’s successes
and goals in face-to-face meetings; formal background and
update reports; summary flyers; video-documentaries (shared
on the research interns’ blog site); project web-site; social
gathering invites; and initial and themed workshop invites. This
process is augmented by conference co-presentations by the
researchers and research interns at academic gatherings in
Canada and other international destinations, developing best
practice case studies for curriculum design and re-alignment,
and generating journal, textbook, and popular press publica-
Impacts and Influences
Monitoring and evaluation learning has included the use of a
variety of tools over the project’s span. Impact evaluation
(Baker, 2000) is used to assess effects on households (income,
participation, social benefits, attitude and behavior change), and
participatory appraisals (Van Manaen, 1990) combine group
interviews and key informant interviews. Much of this data
collection is undertaken by research interns. As well, debriefing
meetings with the project’s partner organizations provide a
professional critique of the project’s outputs and outcomes.
Organizational learning is also an important component of
monitoring and e v al uation, and l ea rning is also central to co-op-
erative inquiry (Ospina, El Hadidy, & Hofmann-Pinilla, 2008).
Inquiry cycles for VIU research teams are used for both formal
and informal reflection on learning. This approach is viewed as
particularly important given that researchers engage signifi-
cantly in the personal and collective lives of FAALS members.
The alliance activity is highly relational work. Research intern
roles are participatory and focused on a co-operative inquiry
process, consequently their knowledge of and creativity with
participatory planning methods has had a significant impact.
Young leaders have also been encouraged and informally men-
tored through the friendships that have inevitably developed
over the years between undergraduate interns and the younger
FAALS members. Of note, a significant social capital outcome
to date has been the emergence of female leaders in the project,
which we attribute in part to 75% of the research interns over
the project lifespan to date have been emotionally mature and
capable young female students.
Understanding and capturing impacts and influences has also
involved log-book reports with emphases on topic entries (e.g.,
sustainability, global citizenship, and undergraduate research)
and follow-up debriefings with research interns on their learn-
ing experiences both during and at the end point of their in-
ternships provide information on preparation readiness, skills
application, assessing experiential learning and skill develop-
ment, and attitudinal and behavior change. In this context, the
HG has provided significant research and international devel-
opment lessons at VIU for undergraduate research design,
qualitative methodologies, project life span theory, collabora-
tion and partnership longevity, and means to create mutual
learning activities.
“Top Half” Learning
The HG as an international research alliance focusing on
sustainable livelihoods for rural famers in central Costa Rica
provides rich learning grounds in what Healey and Jenkins
(2009) refer to as the “top half” (p. 8) of the four main ap-
proaches to undergraduate research. The high focus on rela-
tionship as outlined above, an emergent approach to engaged
cooperative inquiry cycles that culminate in action and dis-
cernable change, and a participatory action research lens create
a range of activities that student interns can undertake to prac-
tice as well as hone their research skills. These include skills
such as interviewing, facilitating focus groups, posing research
questions, undertaking literature and other systematic reviews,
data analysis (primarily of qualitative data), problem solving,
drawing inferences and conclusions, dealing with ambiguity
and change, participatory data collection methods, advanced
listening, integrative thinking, team work, knowledge mobiliza-
tion, and adapting verbal and written communications for di-
verse audiences.
The lead researcher over time has identified key components
that contribute to the positive experiences of students and what
they gain from this undergraduate research; such insights are
consistent with existing literature. First, student interns who
seek out this project tend to value social justice and are moti-
vated by making a difference in the world in the capacity that
they can. In their initial interviews about participation with the
lead researcher, students also identify their desire to gain addi-
tional skills and competencies, apply their academic learning in
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
the field, and gain experience that can contribute to their pro-
fessional careers. This is consistent with what Styles (2009)
identified as the top two motivational factors for student par-
ticipation in undergraduate research: goals and value added.
The factor of goals included motivations of relevance to career,
relevance to education, future intention to apply to graduate
school and opportunity to add to resume (p. 125). Additionally
students’ beliefs that the research will make a difference also
was in the top five things that students identify as helping them
persist with their undergraduate research (Styles, 2009).
Second, deep learning occurs through the research internship
as evidenced by student interns’ journals and output reports.
This is consistent with views about the benefits of undergradu-
ate research as it fosters engagement in learning through appli-
cation, trying out, and reflection (Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour,
2007; Lopatto, 2007). Student involvement in the HG is inten-
sive, with placements lasting two to five months, with three
months being the most frequent length of internship. This
length of time allows for immersion and moves beyond cultural
voyeurism (Racine & Perron, 2012) so that trust and relation-
ships can be established for more meaningful contributions. As
well, the lead researcher’s ten year commitment allows for
bridging relationship and trust, sensitizing student research
interns to practices and viewpoints that privilege local knowl-
edge and are consistent with culturally safe approaches. Third,
the availability of the lead researcher in the day to day lives of
the student research interns when they are in the field is highly
valued and contributes to students’ persistence with their un-
dergraduate research activities (Styles, 2009).
Summary and Conclusion
This case study of the ongoing HG project located in the Los
Santos Region of central Costa Rica highlights the methodol-
ogy, methods of co-operative inquiry, and describes the role
that research interns play in action research. Additionally, the
case study confirms the importance of planning and research
support for agricultural cooperatives to confront and deal with
socio-economic challenges and to create community resilience.
Focused-action implementation has created innovative diversi-
fication of farm products, specifically a direct trade organic
(in-the-shade) coffee business, and agro- and eco-tourism busi-
nesses that have helped to stabilize small-scale farming econo-
mies. The hope is that the benefits generated for FAALS will
contribute to the enhancement of sustainable livelihoods for the
rural poor, enhance agrarian reform programs, and help build
resilient and robust rural sectors. Underlying this effective long
term alliance is the axis of trust and relationship that allows for
the necessary foundation to engage members across a mean-
ingful global North-South alliance.
The benefits of available learning opportunities for student
research interns within action research have also been high-
lighted in this paper. Given this paper has been co-authored
with two undergraduate research interns with the 2012 field
activity, it is appropriate to close with a representative quote
from this undergraduate research team:
“The project has enabled me to develop my career goals
within the eco-tourism and community fields. Cross-cul-
tural experiences in an international rural community
context have enhanced my facilitation, communication
and leadership skills, and the project has provided oppor-
tunities to practice research skills learned at university.
Being engaged in co-operative inquiry community plan-
ning workshops that have important real world outcomes
for FAALS has been a humbling and insightful experi-
ence. While representing VIU in an international devel-
opment setting, I have also been able to apply my knowl-
edge and capitalize on networking opportunities. These
global community experiences have become a highly val-
ued and life changing part of my academic career.”
The FAALS cooperative has created and deepened trust, re-
lationships and collaborations between remote Los Santos rural
communities to tackle the common problem of small-scale
farming livelihood security. This unifying process has been
significantly supported by the embracing of the project’s lead
principle: that being the axis of trust and relationship among all
project stakeholders. Trust and authentic relationships are re-
garded as vital to the project longevity and long-term impacts.
The presence of young vibrant, gregarious, committed research
interns who live and witness the benefit of this principle has
played a significant role in creating the social platform for
community collaboration and positively influencing change
through action.
The project is grateful to the Canadian Embassy in San Jose;
the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada/Canada-
Latin America and the Caribbean Research Exchange Grants
Program; the Vancouver Island University (VIU) grants pro-
grams and the Faculty of International Education; and all pri-
vate donors for their funding and support to date.
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