Anthropology students leave classroom for world history lesson

Michael Wesch, associate professor of sociology, anthropology and social work, holds a camera during the World Simulation, an activity in his large Introduction to Cultural Anthropology classes on Nov. 12, 2010. (Public Domain Photo)

More than 400 students battled over resources and territories in a “World Simulation” project conducted on the east end of campus on Wednesday. The simulation was part of a class experiment to replicate the history of the world over the past 600 years.

Michael Wesch, associate professor of sociology, anthropology and social work, incorporated the world simulation into his Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class when he began teaching at K-State 11 years ago. Wesch said when he started teaching, he paid attention to the questions students were asking him about midway through the semester.

“They were all asking questions like, ‘When is the paper due?’ and ‘What is this test worth?’ and stuff like that,” Wesch said. “I thought, ‘Shoot, those aren’t the questions that I wanted to inspire.’ I wanted to inspire really big questions about the world and how it works. That is when I threw out the rest of the syllabus that year and pitched that idea to the students.”

The simulation was originally a card-trading game performed indoors. Now, the class performs the experiment outdoors on the east side of campus.

In the simulation, students were divided into smaller groups and given a spot of land, or “territory.” Each group of about 20 students represented a different culture that had to trade with others to survive the simulation. Students were given different resources — marshmallows, straws, rubber bands and PVC pipes — and had to strategize ways to gain more resources and defend their land.

“It’s all about trying to trade resources and trying to take down the enemy team by either being combative or diplomatic,” Weston Vail, freshman in applied music, said.

The students scored points by making necklaces out of their resources and by shooting arrows past flags in “enemy territories” as a way to “conquer them.” Some groups gained points after acquiring the territories and “forcing” the conquered people to create necklaces for them. By the end of the simulation, the group with the most points earned extra credit.

Julia Chestnut, junior in anthropology, took the class her sophomore year and returned this year as a teacher’s assistant. Chestnut said when she first experienced the simulation, she was confused about the project; however, she said as she got more involved in it, she became more competitive.

“I knew the goal was to get us to learn more about the World Systems Theory, and the goal is to get the students to understand how the world came to be the way it is today,” Chestnut said.

Victoria Sparkman, freshman in arts and science open option, said the experiment “was better than sitting in a class copying down notes.”

Chestnut said after participating in the simulation, students in the future should understand more about the systems of the world.

“We’re really hoping that they take away an understanding of why the world is the way it is,” Chestnut said. “Why poor countries are poor and why rich countries are rich. There’s no way we can change the way that countries are and the way the world is set up now unless we fully understand how it came to be that way and the systems that are at work to create the structure of the world nowadays.”