Expanding the Global Classroom

CALS has long been renowned for extensive international engagement. A new program enriches global opportunities for undergrads by making international perspectives, skills and applications part and parcel of the science curriculum.

From case studies to field studies, from podcasts to research abroad, instructors proposed an array of novel projects, all of them designed to introduce a global perspective into undergraduate science courses. In the roughly two years since the program’s inception, these three dozen or so teaching innovations have reached approximately 2,000 students in more than 50 courses each year.

Equally important, they are showing us why—and in what way—infusing international content into undergraduate science education is of value.

Food security, global health and nutrition, renewable energy, environmental sustainability—our 21st-century challenges are not referred to as “complex, global problems” simply because they transcend geographical regions. They are both complex and global because they are embedded in an array of languages, religions, measurements, legal systems, trade policies, and deeply held beliefs about one’s personal well-being and relationship to the land.

CALS students know they are entering professions that are profoundly interconnected economically, politically—and daily. Whether searching for a means to feed a world population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050 or the best way to brand Wisconsin’s products to India’s emerging middle class, they are eager for the skills not just to navigate in this new environment, but also to lead. They may be studying a seemingly value-free subject like biochemistry, but they are keenly aware that effectively applying that knowledge requires a nuanced understanding of the world around them. As one nutritional scientist told me in an early meeting: the spleen may work the same way around the world, but people’s diets are very different.

Shared Classrooms, Shared Benefits
Last fall, plant pathology professor Caitilyn Allen and botany professor Don Waller connected their class on the fifth floor of Russell Labs with an equivalent course at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, taught by agronomy professor Pablo Prado. Comparing agricultural and conservation practices in the tropics and the American Midwest, students shared lecture content throughout the semester and communicated via videoconference technology and social media.And in January they embarked together on a two-week field study through Guatemala, observing industrial and traditional agricultural practices and new conservation efforts. The students helped harvest seed corn in a mountainside milpa plot, interviewed former orchid poachers who have learned to grow their own orchids, compared organic and conventional coffee farms, and lunched with Mayan sheep and potato farmers on a bare and windswept highland plateau.

For many of the Guatemalan students, the trip was their first opportunity to see firsthand those aspects of their country. Prado later wrote that it helped at least one of his students discover “how fun a profession in agriculture could be.”

According to Allen, CALS students are hungry for the opportunity to contribute to—and not just “tour”—a region, whether through service learning, volunteer work or shared experiences like these. “Our students are deeply idealistic,” she says. “They want to know that the lessons they learn in and about other countries also benefit the people they see there. They know that what we do here matters.”

“Awareness of other cultures and awareness of what’s going on around the world has huge implications [for how we conduct our work],” a junior majoring in horticulture told us in a focus group earlier this year.

Enrollment trends echo this sentiment. Take the Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, a cross-campus offering administered through CALS. Earning the certificate requires students to complete at least two core courses in global, public and environmental health and earn a handful of elective credits. They also must embark upon either a domestic or international field experience designed to expose them to global, intersecting issues of human, animal and environmental health. Launched less than two years ago, it is easily one of the most sought-after certificates on campus. As of the spring 2013 semester, it had 316 current students and 75 alumni.

For other students, the growing market demand for food, technology and biofuels in other parts of the world inspire them to gain international experience. “We live in a global marketplace, and science breeds products that get fed into that marketplace,” a microbiology major who also is earning a Certificate in Business told us.

Whether in the name of global competition or collaboration, the next generation of scientists will work in international, multidisciplinary teams. And their success will depend upon
how well they apply their scientific knowledge to real-world challenges on the ground.