ŌSAKIKAMIJIMA, JAPAN — When Hiromi Nagao, former president of a women’s college in Hiroshima, met College of the Atlantic Professor Jay Friedlander and President Darron Collins at an education conference in 2014, she had no idea how much her home island and Mount Desert Island have in common.
She did have an idea that the COA approach of hands-on, interdisciplinary learning could be useful for Japanese students facing a complex future.
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, Friedlander said, “people went back and said, part of the reason we’re having this disaster is because of our educational system. When it happened, people didn’t know how to communicate across disciplines. The response was hampered because things were so siloed.”
In searching for education reform ideas, Nagao found Ashoka, an international group promoting social entrepreneurship and innovation. She met Friedlander and Collins at a gathering of “Ashoka U Change Maker Campuses” and came away inspired by COA.
The island of Osakikamijima, which is in the prefecture (state) of Hiroshima, has a population of about 8,000. Its population has been declining, and the three elementary schools recently consolidated. Local industry includes a large industrial shipyard, some commercial fishing, a maritime college and agriculture, especially oranges and blueberries.
Back in the 1960s when a group of residents and business leaders began talking about opening a college on MDI, the island also was in an economic downturn and losing population, Collins said.
Catholic priest and peace activist Father James Gower, local businessman Les Brewer and others hatched the idea that a college could be a positive economic, educational and cultural force for the island.
A similar group of business, community, education and government leaders on Osakikamijima have begun to discuss the idea of a new interdisciplinary college on the island. They hope to adopt much of COA’s pedagogical approach.
In the summer of 1971, a year before the first class of students arrived at the new College of the Atlantic, the college’s founders put together a pilot summer program.
This coming summer, Nagao, COA leaders and others hope to host a similar summer human ecology lab on Osakikamijima to get the ball rolling.
Friedlander visited in August of last year, and Collins made a trip last month. The idea has the support of leaders at the municipal, prefectural and national levels. Collins met with Hidehiko Yuzaki, the governor of Hiroshima prefecture, who holds a master’s degree from Stanford. “His vision is to put the prefecture on the educational vanguard for the country,” Collins said.
A group of young Tokyo professionals connected with Ashoka also is excited to support the project.
“It’s exciting to see how much energy there is behind this, a real openness to and interest in what we’ve done over here,” Friedlander said. “It’s such a huge validation of what we’ve been doing here for many years.”