Expanding the Global Classroom

A LITTLE MORE than two years ago I started cold-calling CALS faculty and instructional staff requesting no more than 25 minutes of their time. The first thing I asked the dozens of respondents who agreed to my conversational survey was: “What do you already do to introduce your students to the international aspects of your field?” Then I asked: “What would you do?” And then: “What would you need to do it?”

Their answers were as varied as the sometimes spontaneous, often revisited and always generous conversations I enjoyed over the next few months. Some wanted technical support to connect their classrooms with equivalent courses in other countries. Many were eager to host their international colleagues as guest lecturers. Some envisioned podcasts and websites designed to share relevant teaching resources. Still others conjured up entirely new majors, or a renewed system for rewarding teaching engagement across campus more generally. All of them were eager to tackle the challenge.

In the end, three common needs stood out: more opportunities to collaborate with partners abroad; time to put new teaching projects together; and graduate student assistance to pull it off.

The CALS International Programs Office was prepared to meet those needs with a small awards program under the auspices of the campus-wide Madison Initiative for Undergraduates. International Programs director John Ferrick and undergraduate program development director Laura Van Toll conceived of the program to support science faculty interested in further introducing their students to the international aspects of their fields; I was brought on to help carry it out. We asked for “global learning outcomes” in the awards application so that we could learn the skills and perspectives instructors wanted their students to gain. And we gathered a group of faculty to evaluate and lend insight into the feasibility of their colleagues’ projects.

Many Ways of Knowing

“How do you take care of the forest—and how does the forest take care of you?”

Those questions might not spark a vibrant discussion among typical suburban middle-schoolers. But kids who grow up living, playing or hunting on the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin couldn’t say enough.

“They had all kinds of stories about the plants and animals that live there,” says CALS researcher Hedi Baxter Lauffer, who recently sat in on a talking circle with seventh- and eighth-graders from the Menominee Indian School District. “They were saying things like, ‘I take my nephew into the forest and teach him to pick up his trash. He needs to know that it’s a beautiful place to play.’”

Lauffer, along with biochemistry professor Rick Amasino and other researchers, was seeking student input for POSOH (poh-SOH)—the Menominee word for hello—a new partnership program between CALS (with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in a leading role) and the College of Menominee Nation.

The program, funded by a $4.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will over the next five years prepare students for bioenergy- and sustainability-related careers. Unlike most science education programs, POSOH will include exploration of how Native American traditions contribute to understanding ecosystems and sustainability.

People from minority cultures often struggle finding a path into science because of conflicts with their heritage, notes Lauffer. POSOH researcher Robin Kimmerer, for example, says that as a professor of forest biology and as a Native American, she’s had to work hard to reconcile two distinct ways of experiencing nature.

“In science we are asked to objectify the world, to view it in a strictly material, intellectual way,” says Kimmerer, who earned her doctorate in botany at UW–Madison and now teaches at the State University of New York. “In indigenous ways of knowing, we’re reminded that we can understand the world intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually—and that we can’t really claim to understand something unless we engage all four elements,” she says.

POSOH started field-testing teaching units this fall with 150 middle-schoolers, along with launching an after-school “sustainability club” and offering school-break research opportunities for kids on the UW–Madison campus. Over the next five years POSOH will provide numerous summer teacher training institutes to spread the program, which is expected to reach several thousand children in rural Wisconsin—and, researchers hope, provide a national model for bringing diverse ethnic groups into science.

We have a lot to gain by doing this, notes Lauffer. “We need innovative solutions to energy and sustainability challenges,” says Lauffer. “Broadening our knowledge and increasing access to scientific inquiry can help us meet those challenges.”