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“The Power of People-to-People Exchange”: Space Science, Curriculum Development, and Teacher Training with Mackenzie Bristow in India

In Thiruvananthapuram, India, the realms of curriculum development and India-US space cooperation intertwined as English Language Specialist Mackenzie Bristow embarked on a multi-phase project to deliver courses focusing on communication for aerospace scientists. Bristow met undergraduate and graduate students – along with faculty –  at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), at the start of what would become an unforgettable experience for the Specialist and her participants.

Bristow had three distinct duties as a Specialist, as she explains: “to deliver the curriculum we had designed during the virtual stage, to spend time with the faculty and students, [and] to learn more about Southern Indian culture.” The resulting project is a testament to Bristow’s success in keeping those goals in mind. As one local participant noted, Bristow’s work is a great example of “the power of people-to-people exchange.”

Adventure at Home and Abroad

Taking time with each person I met and getting to know them was how I experienced cultural exchange.

Bristow’s project took place over multiple months and modalities. After an initial virtual phase in which Bristow conducted a needs assessment and developed curriculum, a six-week in-person phase saw her leading teacher training workshops built around the revamped curriculum, piloting an undergraduate science communication curriculum, and hosting workshops for graduates on research publication.  Bristow began the virtual phase with a careful reading of IIST’s website to identify the aspects of space science important to participants, and from there Bristow reached out to the institute’s experts for guidance. Along with reading published papers by the IIST faculty, Bristow pulled from her professional network at Emory, Cal-Tech, and Boeing to talk with material engineers, physicists, and astrophysicists about the specifics of their fields. 

Bristow also attended IIST classes via Google Hangouts whenever she could (in spite of the 10.5 hour time difference). To further grasp the needs of her learners, she also familiarized herself with the formulas and key data important to her participants. “When it comes to areas like academic communication, it is necessary to learn the language of data as well, because it is often the most important part of the story,” she said.   

The virtual phase involved a lot of early morning meetings before her regular work day began, but once in India, Bristow’s project involved the variety of scheduling and depth of engagement that is only possible in-person. Mornings started with a hotel buffet that introduced her to new Indian dishes every day and the one-hour commute to IIST allowed engaging conversations with her driver. After piloting the curriculum workshops, Bristow enjoyed meetings with students and faculty, followed by evenings revising the curriculum and preparing for the next day. “Although many encouraged me to travel outside the region, I wanted to spend less time in a car and more time walking, talking to people, and visiting museums and local sites,” she said. Weekends provided free time for exploring her surroundings, enjoying mouthwatering vegetarian meals at Mothers Veg Plaza, and fostering new friendships and cultural understanding. 

Bristow’s hotel was centrally located, which facilitated visits to gardens and sights such as the Napier Museum. An enthusiast of dance, she was also delighted to attend the annual Nishagandhi Dance Festival, where she was honored with a front-row seat to witness the spectacular performances. Weekend outings included hiking on the IIST campus, close-up observation of the satellite communication hfardware on the library’s roof, and the chance to forge closer relationships with her student and faculty guides. “Taking time with each person I met and getting to know them was how I experienced cultural exchange,” she said.

Success Strategies and Feedback

Bristow credits Regional English Language Officer Ruth Goode and her team, including Shweta Khanna, for the design of the project, which evolved over time. “The two phases were strategically entwined in a way that enhanced the communication needs of undergraduates and graduates” while providing ample opportunities for cultural exchange and human connection. Along with training teachers using a revised curriculum, she said, “I was also there to learn and share.” 

Specialist projects are often planned to the last minute and deliverable – but invariably, it’s still necessary to adapt on the fly.  For example, one group of workshop participants requested a pre- and post-project proficiency test. Knowing proficiency gains would be difficult to capture in only six-weeks, she responded by working with them to emphasize learner confidence and the relevancy of classroom materials within the assessments. Understanding the needs and expectations of learners and institute leadership was key to finding “an opportunity to co-build curricula with real empathy,” she said.

The project continues to resonate with IIST participants. “I am still in contact with the faculty at IIST and a number of the students,” Bristow says, adding that the project’s success led to a second series of workshops at the university. Working with a STEM-focused crowd but embedded within the Humanities department led to growth for everyone involved. “I gained a new appreciation for how the humanities can deepen and sharpen the communication for scientists, and I feel they appreciated learning how language learning techniques could shape their general communication aims. Having the opportunity to grow so close with so many amazing people, it was very difficult to say goodbye.” 

Within the department, IIST associate professor in the Humanities Dr. Babitha Justin lauded the renewed energy and confidence in communication that students got from exposure to professional networks and writing techniques. Her colleague in the department, Dr. Gigy J. Alex, concurred that confidence in teachers and students had risen significantly after the project, and that input and feedback to the faculty were continuing to have an impact on professional development at the university. 

U.S. Embassy officials added that this project supports Mission India’s goal to “strengthen Indian technology innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership, and collaboration to support a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific,” and that it plays an important role in larger space diplomacy initiatives in the partnership between the U.S. and India. When asked about the project, RELO Ruth Goode recalls that Bristow was  “stellar in every way.” She adds that “Mackenzie exemplified all we ask for in a Specialist. She was technically extremely sophisticated and skilled, incredibly conscientious, and, equally important, a wonderful citizen diplomat who made friends with people at every level of her host institution.”

UX and the Road Ahead

Now, as a User Experience (UX) specialist working in a large Fortune 500 company, Bristow borrows from literature, English for Specific Purposes, and sociocultural approaches in her work solving the needs of people engaging in digital experiences. Bristow said that specialists in UX “start with empathizing with the users to identify problems to be solved, then they iterate and test with users, and finally go into a revision creation cycle.” She has recently begun bringing some of the best approaches and techniques from UX back into the world of ESL.

As to what’s in store for Bristow, she said her project with IIST gave her an opportunity to begin exploring intersections among her areas of expertise, the needs of international students, language teaching and administration, and User Experience methodologies. “Seeing the positive results of this marriage of disciplines, I have been inspired to start publishing again and reaching out to colleagues within the ESL community who might be interested in applying UX to ESL,” she said. If her project in Thiruvananthapuram is anything to go by, such intersections are something to look forward to in the years to come.  

Dr. Mackenzie Bristow has over 20 years of experience in teacher training and English language teaching.  She obtained her PhD at Georgia State University and has researched, presented, and published in the areas of English language program administration, teacher training, and higher education language planning and policy. Bristow has both taught in and managed top-tier university English language programs.  As Director of Emory University’s Laney Graduate School (LGS) English Language Support Program in Atlanta, Georgia, she worked closely with faculty to develop and implement an innovative curriculum focused on academic communication and research publication. Additionally, as Director of Global Engagement with LGS, she established a partnership with Nanjing University’s Engineering and Applied Sciences College in China to provide English language training for faculty and students in English for the sciences.  She has facilitated English language faculty training across the globe, including twice as an English Language Specialist in Qatar and India. She has worked for large companies such as Samsung to strengthen professional communications while empowering individuals to find their unique voice.  She is currently working with technologists to enhance their skills in human-centered design and communication.

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