‘We’re in unprecedented times’: Kansas university looks to new curriculum for climate change era

Kansas Wesleyan University launches ‘mentor project’ to reconnect educational disciplines and unite students with the land

By: - August 18, 2021 9:00 am

Matthew Sanderson is launching a new type of interdisciplinary curriculum at Kansas Wesleyan University designed to help address climate change. (Karen Bonar/Kansas Wesleyan University)

In light of the catastrophic climate change that has produced devastating wildfires, rising oceans and sweltering summer heat, education that is siloed by students’ chosen fields is no longer workable, says a Kansas professor.

“We’re in unprecedented times, so in that context, we cannot have an education like we used to have because the same types of thinking that got us here … are not likely to get us out of that particular problem,” said Matthew Sanderson, a special assistant to the president at Kansas Wesleyan University.

Sanderson, a fifth generation Kansan, graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in economics and finance. It wasn’t until years later that he started to think about how many questions went unanswered by his bachelor’s degree education. After the terrorist attacks in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, he looked for more opportunities to learn how people work and went back to school for a master’s degree and Ph.D. in sociology. 

Now, he wants to tackle what he feels is an unsustainable way people relate to one another. He’s launching a new curriculum at KWU — currently called the “mentor project” — meant to take a more interdisciplinary approach to education that allows students to learn beyond their chosen fields of study. The idea is broad, but the issue Sanderson is most concerned with is climate change.

“We’re after changing the culture,” Sanderson said. “And we’re going to try to change the culture by producing or generating a new model of education that tries to reconnect people with the land and each other.”

With regard to climate change, he said students majoring in business, for example, at KWU should leave the university with an understanding of how decisions they make can affect the climate. 

“In the climate change era … it’s going to be less tenable to come out of a major university with a business degree that doesn’t fully understand the implications of trading, for example, stocks on the plant, on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Sanderson said. 

Initially, the program will span six semesters — including summers — over two years. Eventually, Sanderson hopes it could become a major for undergraduate students.

In the program, students’ classroom education will be more holistic than it might in a traditional field of study. Sanderson said classes will be problem-focused and designed to “put back together the disciplines, which have separated the world into particular fields of study.”

For example, a history major or other social science major would need to take a selection of “hard science” courses — and vice-versa.

Students will also be required to accrue 30 credit hours working with their hands — 15 on a farm about five miles from the university’s campus and another 15 learning a trade, like carpentry, welding, pottery or painting.

“We’re seeing the agricultural component, really, as a classroom, as a means of getting students out of the traditional learning environment in the four walls and working with their hands again and reconnecting the education that happens in the classroom with what can happen with their hands out in the world,” Sanderson said.

Classes started earlier this month at KWU, and Sanderson hopes to get the curriculum for the mentor project developed and approved in time for it to launch next fall.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.