WAYS campers learn, discern, when grappling with complex issues

August 15, 2017

photo of WAYS campers

For the 30th consecutive year, going back to 1987, the College of Education’s Secondary Social Science Education Program hosted the World Affairs Youth Seminar (WAYS), which brings high school students from several states to our campus. Once here, these students explore complex international issues, learn research techniques, and develop skills debating what they have learned while advocating for their assigned country’s position in a Model UN debate. The seminar is the oldest educational outreach camp at Auburn University, and one of Auburn’s very few non-STEM related academic camps.

We have written in the past about the camp’s history, its Model UN format, and the incisive ways these high school students grapple with complex issues going on in the world around them.  What we have not done is examine how these students become so well informed about these issues, and how they are able to represent their assigned country’s perspective in these Model UN formats, where the going is frequently passionate, but always on point.

“We are very fortunate to have so many excellent resources in place for these students,” said Jada Kohlmeier, Ph.D., a Professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching and director of the annual event. “A central focus of this year’s camp, for example, was the Syrian Civil War. This ongoing armed conflict between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the many forces opposed to his regime is amazingly complex. There are so many different groups involved in the actual fighting, as well as ‘proxy warriors,’ including Russia and Hezbollah supporting Assad, and NATO countries – including the U.S. – supporting the opposition. And the alignments and methods of the different groups are fluid as well, so the challenge is to help the students learn enough about it to be able to represent their countries when we have our afternoon UN sessions.”

One of these “excellent resources” is Matt Malczycki, Ph.D., who is the Department of History’s Middle Eastern historian. On the second full day of the camp Dr. Malczycki provided an overview of the causes of the civil war, and sorted out the many different stakeholders in the costly, bloody, and ultimately tragic conflict which has killed tens of thousands of innocent children and non-combatants. The refugee crisis resulting from the war may be even worse, having impacted several million people and caused a worldwide diaspora.

Dr. Kohlmeier’s preservice social science teachers provide student-centered lessons each day on a specific topic such as: cyberattacks; rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure and political structure; and the effects of world hunger, particularly as it relates to this conflict.

“In addition to these outstanding resources, we also welcome back every year one of our outstanding graduates, Drew Morgan, who is the head of the History Department at Auburn Junior High School,” Kohlmeier said. “He teaches a session on writing resolutions, and acts as the moderator during our UN debates.”

Of particular note in this year’s camp was a Day Three session led by Kohlmeier on the concept of “just war.” She began the interactive section by asking the students to think about what happens at their school when a fight breaks out. She asks if there are “rules” for such a fight or if anything goes. What is the role of bystanders, of friends, and of metaphorically (and literally) of hitting below the belt?

“We use the Socratic Method in these types of discussions and have very passionate, lively, and often entertaining debates,” she said. “We work in history, such as Medieval chivalry, the Code of Hamurabi, Samurai warriors, and other concrete examples off of which they can bounce their own observations.”

Following the discussion, she broke the class into Cabinet-level groups who had to answer specific questions to advise the President of the United States on the principles of war. The groups were ranking possible solutions that led to lively debate about two key questions: (1) When is a nation justified in fighting a war?; and (2) What actions are justified in fighting a war?

“Overall this is a great program for two big reasons,” Kohlmeier concluded. “First, our campers are just terrific. They come to us from many different places, but have in common a passion for democracy and an ability to learn. We also try to introduce them to our program in hopes that we can recruit them to Auburn as students. I love the opportunity to get to know them through the week. The other reason it’s a great camp is because of all the support we get from our contributing faculty, the summer camp infrastructure that is so strong at Auburn, our preservice teachers, and people like Drew Morgan. They all do such a great job. This is something I look forward to every year, and it gives me faith in our future to see so many passionate people working together for the greater good.”