A new study abroad program in Peru unites Virginia Tech students with students at the University of Piura for hands-on learning. Traveling together, they see techniques of behavioral economics applied to problems in developing countries.

Peru – a country of coasts, mountains, and jungles – is a dramatic backdrop for the 14 undergraduates whose goal is to craft inventive solutions and listen to the people they’re trying to help.

Videography and writing by Andrea Brunais. Postproduction by Michael Folta, a fourth-year student majoring in architecture in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

This series of short videos goes behind the scenes of their journey during 10 days in July 2018. The students hear lectures in Lima, fly to Piura, visit a flood-ravaged town, and travel to the Andes, where they become immersed in the problems of tiny mountain towns.

At the end of their stay, they generate interventions to problems, without exceeding a theoretical budget of $100,000. Along the way, two students reflect on their journey: Virginia Tech’s Hannah Looney, who’s majoring in industrial and systems engineering in the College of Engineering, and Jose Luis Herrera Hinojosa, an economics major at the University of Piura. (Virginia Tech students from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the College of Science also took part.)

The students are asked to consider: Is aid to developing countries good or bad? Does it create dependency? Do policymakers offer expert help and then simply hope the situation gets better? Or do they stand by and watch problems play out? Economists must find ways, as one of their professors puts it, “to know what works, and why.”

Anticipating the students’ fieldwork in the Andes, Looney says, “I like that we are going to be doing interviews with people to find out what they actually need – not what we think they might need.”

The program’s formal title is VT-UDEP Economics Lab: Experiment-Driven Policy-making in Peru. The venture, which included a week of classroom work in Blacksburg, Virginia, along with the Peru experience, is funded from several sources, including Outreach and International Affairs.

Other partners and funders included the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research and the Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs, as well as a $25,000 grant from the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, part of the nonprofit Partners of the Americas.

To earn the grant, Virginia Tech and the University of Piura pledged to reach low-income and underserved students from rural communities in the U.S. and Peru and offer not only language and intercultural learning but also exposure to STEM subjects on a global scale. 

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