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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.

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What Kansas State lacks in resources that are more plentiful at private universities, it makes up for by creating an “intellectual incubation space for people who are self-motivated, enterprising, and hardworking,” Prins adds. Wesch returned to teach here in 2004, after studying the impact of written language on a remote culture in Papua New Guinea for his PhD. He’s returned to the island nation several times, and his desire to help students strive for a more equitable global village was strengthened one day when he met a boy there whose only piece of clothing was a tattered University of Nebraska sweat shirt. The boy lived in a coffee-producing village, but Wesch realized he’d probably never be able to drink the coffee, which would wind up on store shelves in places like Nebraska.

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When Wesch heard about a cross-cultural Peace Corps training game called Pandya-Chispa, the seed for his world simulation took root. But it didn’t sprout until midterm exams in his first semester as a professor. He saw students pouring energy into memorizing bits of information that he knew they’d later forget. So he structured the rest of the syllabus around creating the simulation. Now he gets rid of about 40 percent of the rules of the game each semester so that students have to come up with new rules to determine how the interactions will play out. “The most learning happens there,” he says.

World Sim materials go up on a class “wiki,” a collection of Web pages that professor and students edit. Building new-media literacy is one of Wesch’s goals. Very few students arrive at his class knowing how to use digital tools such as wikis. Wesch has “really managed to integrate that work on the Web with the traditional tasks of teaching in a most creative way,” says Mary Taylor Huber, a senior scholar at The Carnegie Foundation and a judge for the recent award. When one of Wesch’s students told her parents about the class, her excitement was so palpable that “they started following the course materials online as well.... You just don’t hear that too often,” Ms. Huber says.

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Fun. Personal. Compassionate. Humble. Inspiring. That’s how students describe the man at the front of the lecture hall. They like how he plays music or videos as they shuffle in sleepily for the 8:30 a.m. class. They’re put at ease by his stories about his baby or his travels in Papua New Guinea – and his drumming and dancing. These might come off as goofy stunts by anyone else, says student Matthew Johnson, but it’s clear that Wesch “is only satisfied when every person he teaches gets something from his class.”

“There’s nothing more important than loving your students,” Wesch says, his office full of props from the simulation. “Before I lecture I start getting nervous ... so I meditate on this idea of ‘Love your students.’
“It completely displaces all of that anxiety, because you recognize, it’s not about me, it’s about them.”