Students study complex world issues, engage in debates

August 9, 2016

World Affairs Youth Seminar GroupFor the 29th consecutive year, Auburn University hosted the World Affairs Youth Seminar (WAYS). The seminar is the oldest educational outreach camp at Auburn University, and one of Auburn’s very few non-STEM related academic camps.

WAYS attracts high school students from across the country, who come to Auburn in early July to live on campus, enjoy the town and its surroundings, and engage in an intensive examination of critical, controversial issues challenging our world today. This year the campers examined the Syrian refugee crisis, child brides and child soldiers, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and mosquito-borne illnesses, such as the Zika virus.

In addition to classroom lectures and researching the issues, each student is assigned to represent a country, and the Seminar concludes with a multi-day UN-style session where the issues are debated. Regardless of students’ personal views of the issues, they must learn their country’s position, and represent these positions in what often become passionate encounters.

“Our goal is not to teach UN procedure as much as it is about teaching the delegates to examine issues critically and seeing how these issues impact our world,” explained Drew Morgan, a graduate of the COE’s Social Science Education program. Morgan is the chair of the History Department at Auburn Junior High, and has served as the Secretary General in the debates for the past several years.

“The Zika question is easier than our other topics because we all have a common enemy in the virus,” he said. “On the other hand, China building islands in the South China Sea is amazingly complex. They are taking a page out of Russia’s playbook and basically disregarding international law and opinion. Several nations claim portions of that territory. So yes, our delegates often have a difficult time representing their country’s position on difficult topics.”

Sometimes, the real world intervenes. On Bastille Day, July 14, a terrorist killed 84 civilians in Nice, France by deliberately running a large truck through a crowded patriotic event. The French delegate began that day’s session by calling for a moment of silence in what was clearly a moving experience for the campers.

The camp is led by Dr. Jada Kohlmeier, a Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching. She addressed the delegates and their families at the graduation ceremony, encouraging the students to not only consider Auburn, but to become social science educators.

“My passion is democracy,” she said. “Our inclination is to gather together with people who look and think like we do. So democracy is unnatural. Democracy asks us to be E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. In our classes in social science education here at Auburn, we seek to instill not only deep content knowledge, but also civic competence. We explore complex global issues, find and verify evidence, and work collaboratively for strong solutions. Social Studies trains citizens to protect democracy. Without democracy, we won’t have the country we now have. So this is a high and noble calling, and I invite you to be a part of it.”