Everyone was bored, including Michael Wesch.
During his first teaching gig at Kansas State University in 2004, Wesch oversaw an entry-level anthropology class of 400 students who dutifully crammed for multiple choice exams, but left the lecture hall uninspired and largely uninformed. Looking over the students’ test scores – most of which were pretty good – Wesch was frustrated. The students were learning nothing about the world, other than how to parrot responses on a bubble sheet.
“This is really kind of ridiculous,” he told the class. “Does this really matter? Does it really matter that you memorized this?”
With that moment of truth, a new approach was born. Wesch, an assistant professor who earned his Ph.D. less than five years ago, has transformed “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.” He now places most of the emphasis of the course on a class-wide project that challenges students to “simulate” the last 500 years of world history by creating their own fictional cultures in small groups. In this imaginary world, which has one foot firmly planted in reality, wars are fought over precious commodities like Froot Loops. The idea is to teach students about what motivates people, and to let them witness how civilizations can be built and destroyed by global ambition.
“Instead of all of the students’ energy being focused on, 'How am I going to pass?’ the whole class focuses around one question, and that is: ‘How does the world work?’ ” Wesch said.
Wesch’s innovative pedagogy has made him one of the four “2008 U.S. Professors of the Year” to be honored in Washington, D.C. today. The contest, sponsored by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, selected winners from a pool of nearly 300 professors from across the country.
Wesch, who was named Professor of the Year in the doctoral and research university category, is joined in the honor by:
Wei Chen, a professor of biomedical engineering a the University of Central Oklahoma and winner in the master’s universities category. Chen led the development of the state's first and only undergraduate program in biomedical engineering.
- Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, an associate professor of psychology at Lewis & Clark College and winner in the baccalaureate college category. Detweiler-Bedell has incorporated role playing into her classes to help students understand psychological disorders.
- Eugenia Paulus, a professor of chemistry at North Hennepin Community College and winner in the community college category.
The winners, who will receive $5,000 each, were selected by three separate panels that included education reporters, representatives from academe, government and foundations. The judges weighed four criteria:
- Impact on and involvement with undergraduate students.
- Scholarly approach to teaching and learning.
- Contributions to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession.
- Support from colleagues and current and former undergraduate students.
Paulus, who won in the community college category, was lauded for helping students prepare for local jobs requiring scientific backgrounds. After surveying local employers about the skills they valued in workers, Paulus built a new curriculum designed to place students in jobs where they could conduct chemical analysis for companies that produce polymers and plastics. While the program has been successful, Paulus said she wants her students to do more than keep the jobs she helped them land.
“I’m hoping they will come back [to college],” she said, “and realize their dream of being a doctor or a pharmacist.”