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Sociology Students Attack Global Problems

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After many iterations of one of her course, “Global Issues and the United Nations,” Jackie Smith, Department of Sociology, observed how disappointed her students were with the ineffectiveness of international organizations charged with resolving the most critical global issues of our time – poverty, environmental degradation, climate change. Her response to this disillusionment was the creation of a course project that allows groups of students to present their own ideas about how best to mobilize people and organizations to resolve these global issues. In planning the project, Smith drew from her experience as global issues activist and scholar, including membership on the planning committee for the U.S. Social Forum, a national chapter of the World Social Forum.

Students initiate the semester-long project with a group proposal which they will eventually defend during the classroom “social forum.”  Each proposal centers on a particular social problem (e.g., environmental destruction, human rights, women’s rights, food security, violence) and seeks ways to strengthen existing policies meant to remedy the problem. Students are required to review existing proposals by local, national and global actors already addressing the issue. Throughout the semester each project group provides progress updates to the class and Professor Smith either in person or via the class’s CourseWeb site.  During the classroom social forum, groups present and defend their proposals using PechaKucha slideshows online. This method was adopted to address the move from a smaller class to a large class. Previously, the students’ presentations were accomplished face to face.  A PechaKucha slideshow consist of 20 images shown for 20 seconds each. The format encourages presenters to keep presentations concise and on-time – an ideal format for end-of-semester group presentations. Following the proposal presentations, the class votes on the proposals and ranks them according to their effectiveness.

The project concludes with the submission of individual reflection papers. The reflection papers reveal a high level of satisfaction with the project and a desire to expand upon what they learned through the process outside of the classroom. As one student reflected, “This sociology class has pushed me to again think hard about solutions for global problems and to think about forging relationships across borders.”

By Carolyn Barber, CIDDE