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When college students reinvent the world

Kansas State University professor Michael Wesch’s ‘World Sim’ course – aka Anthropology 204 – helps students create new ‘cultures’ to get beyond the multiple choices to understanding the ‘why’ of global affairs.

By Staff Writer / January 12, 2009

Peek-a-boo nation: Student Chelsea Friederich is part of the Peek-a-boo nation of colonizers who ended up killing off two other cultures to achieve their goals in the World Sim anthropology class at Kansas State University.

Courtesy of Erinn Barcomb-Peterson/Kansas State University

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Manhattan, Kan.
The people of Mekka’ kneel in the dirt, sorting pastel cereal loops for their colonizer, the Peek-a-boo nation. “Put each color into [its] own little baggy as quick as possible, and then we will feed you,” orders a Peek-a-boo boss clad in a pink Kansas State sweat shirt. Later, Peek-a-boo declares it is killing off the rebellious populations of two other colonies – Bagheera and Phanat Nikhom. “We’ve been genocided,” a dejected victim says as her group leaves its spot in Kansas State University’s giant rodeo arena – serving as a mini Planet Earth.

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With moments like that, the World Simulation – aka Anthropology 204 – burrows into the hearts and minds of students who otherwise would be choosing A, B, or C on a multiple-choice exam. Cultural anthropology professor Michael Wesch came up with “World Sim” to push students to stop asking, “What’s going to be on the test?” and to contemplate bigger questions: Why are some people poor and some rich? How does the world work?

This young professor teaches in ways that reach far beyond the drab, leaky auditorium where hundreds gather for the introductory course. The goal, he says, is to create an environment where students can expand their capacity for empathizing with and loving those who are different from them.

His innovative methods – from the World Sim to researching the YouTube culture with students in a smaller course – recently earned him a US Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

For weeks, 400 World Sim students work in groups of 20 to invent cultures – whose often-silly names belie serious values outlined in everything from government structures to gender relations. Then they come together in a giant space – like the cold and pungent rodeo arena – to discover what happens to their societies when confronted with trade systems, war, and depletion of natural resources.

Professor Wesch sets up the simulation by giving each culture a certain amount of power in the beginning – symbolized by playing cards. Then, based on a complex set of rules the class has devised together, students go through each round of the game – striking alliances, trading cards, and sometimes starting “wars” over resources.

The cereal bits represent diamonds, for instance, that have sparked deadly conflict in Africa and are often sent to India to be cut by child laborers. Because nonrenewables such as fossil fuels are often in areas sacred to indigenous peoples, the teaching assistants hide paper symbols for these resources within the special stuffed animal that represents each group. At one point, a member of the Detinu culture hugs the group’s camel tight in a futile effort to protect it from the invading Evanaves (named after teaching assistant Evan Nave). They capture it all on video and then watch and discuss Wesch’s edited version – the years 1450 to 2100 condensed into 20 minutes, complete with dramatic soundtrack.

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