By Isabella Senno
Dragon dancers generally aren’t seen in the same context as a 12-piece saxophone band, but that all changed Feb. 17.
The Confucius Institute recently celebrated 10 years of collaborative programming among University of Iowa, Iowa communities, East China Normal University, and the Chinese Ministry of Education with an evening of speakers and live entertainment.
As the first of its kind in Iowa, the institute has worked to actively maintain an open cross-cultural dialogue by combining long-term research, language courses, and community outreach initiatives.
“The idea [of the program] was to create opportunities for eastern Iowans to learn about China and learn Chinese language not only at the university but also in the communities,” said Downing Thomas, the dean of International Programs. “There’s also the research dimension and all of these create a whole. Iowa has a lot of business interest outside of the U.S., and the more that local communities know about how the world works and how different people perceive things the better we’ll develop in terms of our connections around the world and prospering here locally.”
One of the Confucius Institute’s major efforts over the past decade has been to improve the Chinese language course selection available to students, both at the university level and within the greater community. It recently unveiled pilot Chinese language programs in both West High and City High in the fall 2016 semester.
“We’ve been working on offering dual credit high-school classes for so long and it took a while for the whole thing to bear fruit,” said Chuanren Ke, founding director of the Confucius Institute at the UI. “You can see that the students really like it. Right now, the [institute] is working on offering high-school Chinese not just at one level but also expanding it. Eventually, we want to incorporate language with STEM so our students will be exposed to a lot of technology using Chinese.”
These efforts have not been limited strictly to the Iowa City community.
“Right now, we are also working very hard on offering Chinese courses online to high-school students in other parts of Iowa. Because Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are so close, we can do it on-site, but in far away counties, they also want to offer Chinese,” Ke said. “Right now, we are able to do it in probably a semester or so. The demand is there and we have the know-how, but there are a lot of small details that we still need to pay attention to.”
Erin Mullins, a program coordinator for the Confucius Institute, said the classes have been successful, with a combined enrollment total of around 42 students over the two semesters the program has been available.
The institute hopes to expand the program further, eventually offering more levels of Chinese language at this level and building study-abroad programs geared toward high-school students that would allow them to experience the Chinese language in a transformative way.
Another major component of the institute is its research on Chinese as a second-language acquisition, and the program has done several projects centered on the topic.
“In the discipline, our [institute] is well-known for our applied research in this area, and it is ongoing. We are making great progress in that area,” Ke said. “Right now, we have finished data collection for one of our major research projects and we have received a multi-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. We collected data from 10 universities in this country and three study-abroad programs in China. It’s mixed design research to help answer questions like, ‘What is the optimum length of time to study abroad in China?’ We hope to be able to publish the data in two or three years.”
Moving into the next 10 years, the institute hopes to reach more people than ever before without cutting corners.
“Looking forward, we want to continue to be a resource to the community and the University of Iowa,” Mullins said. “Our primary goal isn’t so much about growth but about making sure the quality of what we offer is high, so that people feel like it’s worthwhile to use our services.”