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A little more than two years ago I started cold-calling CALS faculty and instructional staff requesting no more than 25 minutes of their time. The first thing I asked the dozens of respondents who agreed to my conversational survey was: “What do you already do to introduce your students to the international aspects of your field?” Then I asked: “What would you do?” And then: “What would you need to do it?”

Their answers were as varied as the sometimes spontaneous, often revisited and always generous conversations I enjoyed over the next few months. Some wanted technical support to connect their classrooms with equivalent courses in other countries. Many were eager to host their international colleagues as guest lecturers. Some envisioned podcasts and websites designed to share relevant teaching resources. Still others conjured up entirely new majors, or a renewed system for rewarding teaching engagement across campus more generally. All of them were eager to tackle the challenge.

In the end, three common needs stood out: more opportunities to collaborate with partners abroad; time to put new teaching projects together; and graduate student assistance to pull it off.

The CALS International Programs Office was prepared to meet those needs with a small awards program under the auspices of the campus-wide Madison Initiative for Undergraduates. International Programs director John Ferrick and undergraduate program development director Laura Van Toll conceived of the program to support science faculty interested in further introducing their students to the international aspects of their fields; I was brought on to help carry it out. We asked for “global learning outcomes” in the awards application so that we could learn the skills and perspectives instructors wanted their students to gain. And we gathered a group of faculty to evaluate and lend insight into the feasibility of their colleagues’ projects.

From case studies to field studies, from podcasts to research abroad, instructors proposed an array of novel projects, all of them designed to introduce a global perspective into undergraduate science courses. In the roughly two years since the program’s inception, these three dozen or so teaching innovations have reached approximately 2,000 students in more than 50 courses each year.

Equally important, they are showing us why—and in what way—infusing international content into undergraduate science education is of value.

Food security, global health and nutrition, renewable energy, environmental sustainability—our 21st-century challenges are not referred to as “complex, global problems” simply because they transcend geographical regions. They are both complex and global because they are embedded in an array of languages, religions, measurements, legal systems, trade policies, and deeply held beliefs about one’s personal well-being and relationship to the land.

CALS students know they are entering professions that are profoundly interconnected economically, politically—and daily. Whether searching for a means to feed a world population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050 or the best way to brand Wisconsin’s products to India’s emerging middle class, they are eager for the skills not just to navigate in this new environment, but also to lead. They may be studying a seemingly value-free subject like biochemistry, but they are keenly aware that effectively applying that knowledge requires a nuanced understanding of the world around them. As one nutritional scientist told me in an early meeting: the spleen may work the same way around the world, but people’s diets are very different.

“Awareness of other cultures and awareness of what’s going on around the world has huge implications [for how we conduct our work],” a junior majoring in horticulture told us in a focus group earlier this year.

Enrollment trends echo this sentiment. Take the Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, a cross-campus offering administered through CALS. Earning the certificate requires students to complete at least two core courses in global, public and environmental health and earn a handful of elective credits. They also must embark upon either a domestic or international field experience designed to expose them to global, intersecting issues of human, animal and environmental health. Launched less than two years ago, it is easily one of the most sought-after certificates on campus. As of the spring 2013 semester, it had 316 current students and 75 alumni.

For other students, the growing market demand for food, technology and biofuels in other parts of the world inspire them to gain international experience. “We live in a global marketplace, and science breeds products that get fed into that marketplace,” a microbiology major who also is earning a Certificate in Business told us.

Whether in the name of global competition or collaboration, the next generation of scientists will work in international, multidisciplinary teams. And their success will depend upon how well they apply their scientific knowledge to real-world challenges on the ground.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that in the world of higher education, CALS has been a leading force in the internationalization of science education. Our scholars have long been global citizens, collaborating with international research partners and taking care to see that their discoveries benefit us all.

In 1951, CALS faculty hosted agricultural delegates from nearly 40 developing nations for a conference on land tenure problems. In the following years CALS launched an annual International Farm Youth Educational Exchange Conference and by 1963 had matriculated more than 230 foreign students.

Cold War politics also sent an impressive number of CALS faculty abroad. Bolstered by external and federal funds made available after World War II, faculty from across campus, including those in agriculture, education and engineering, returned from working in countries like India, Brazil and Nigeria eager to share their insights with their students.

Recognizing that our deeply local roots had become the foundation of our institution’s undeniably global reach, in 1961 the University Board of Regents published a policy resolution that in effect “internationalized” their land grant vision:

“With the passing years, the welfare of the people of Wisconsin has become increasingly tied to national and international developments. It is logical, therefore, that the scope of the Wisconsin Idea should be broadened […]. We recognize that the university’s first responsibility is to Wisconsin and its residents. But the university must look outward if this obligation is to be fulfilled.”

Today CALS requires every one of its students to earn three credits of international studies coursework. Scores of CALS graduates have served in the Peace Corps. And nearly every one of the college’s instructors engages in international work of some kind.

In this light, of course our faculty and instructors accepted my request for an interview—and embraced the opportunity to further expose their most junior students to the real-world, collaborative challenges they grapple with every day. We’re pleased to present miniprofiles of some of these efforts as part of this story (go to Grow website for miniprofiles).

Our next step will be to support our instructors’ more strategic and measurable approaches to curricular internationalization—an inventory and assessment of the “international content” in their departments, for example, or of an entire major. That will be tough to do for a moving target like global change—and that’s the point.

Even if we take it at its broadest definition—“to put more global content into the university experience”—the urgency to further “internationalize” CALS curricula has only gained traction. And our students know it.

Visit the following website to learn more about the program and projects described in this article:

Want to take part in the CALS Science Internationalization Project? Contact author Masarah Van Eyck at, or tel. (608) 890-4196.

This story was originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Grow magazine.