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Alternative energy to vegetarianism: Interterm classes cross disciplines

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College students on campus for the January interterm this year could choose from three new courses that evaluated modern issues and art forms through inquisitive and community-based learning.

For the first time ever, Gary Histand, professor of chemistry, taught Alternative Energy Choices; Jon Piper, professor of biology, offered The Effects of a Vegetarian Diet; and Ami Regier, professor of English, led The Graphic Novel.

“One goal of ‘collaborative inquiry’ is to offer courses at Bethel that can examine a topic from multiple perspectives,” Piper said. “Take [the issue of] human hunger. You can’t separate the political systems from the environment from energy use from social justice.

“To realize you can’t separate these things, when people make connections [between disciplines], that’s the goal of a liberal arts education.”

For his class, Histand brought in guest speakers with expertise ranging from energy science and technology, to economic feasibility of new technologies, to lobbying for alternative energy.

The complexity of the issues surrounding alternative energy lends itself well to Bethel’s goal to support each student’s quest for knowledge while addressing valid concerns, Histand said, as well as to cross academic disciplines. For one major assignment, Histand charged students with creating an environmentally, economically and politically viable energy plan for the state of Kansas.

Eric Goering, freshman from McPherson, has considered working in wind energy construction and was eager to take the course.

“Energy solutions are going to be needed and created in the near future,” he said. “We need to find sources of energy to use that will not damage the earth . . . [and to] make the devices we use daily significantly more efficient.”

Like alternative energy choices, Piper’s The Effects of a Vegetarian Diet also necessitated involvement across disciplines.

“This class exemplified interdisciplinary learning unlike any class I’ve ever taken,” said Laura Aronis, senior nursing major from Wichita.

“I came to it expecting a science class, but in reality it’s been that and much, much, more,” she added. “We’ve examined the issue of vegetarianism from nearly every discipline, from evolutionary science, nutrition, economic, political and ecological viewpoints.”

Jennifer Regier, senior biology major from Newton, took the course because she is interested in the environmental and biological impacts of the human diet.

She enjoyed the cooking lab where the class collaborated in the preparation – and consumption – of different ethnic vegetarian dishes.

“We talked a lot about the adverse health effects of red meat,” Regier said. “The common conception is that it is difficult to get all of the [necessary nutrients] without red meat, but that’s really not true.”

The lifestyle of a pure vegetarian may seem intimidating, but small changes in diet and lifestyle can make a big difference, Piper said.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. [We can think] in terms of purchasing more locally grown food or eating more grass-fed beef … to reduce our impact on the Earth.

“Your choices do matter and they really do affect other people,” he said.

Aronis echoed Piper’s urgent call for simple action.

“With ever-increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer in developed countries and severe hunger and poverty in developing countries, our food choices have much more of an impact than we like to think,” she said. “It’s important to be aware of these impacts so that we can make informed decisions.”

While modern problems require innovative solutions, modern communication lends itself to new forms of expression. Graphic novels use both visual and verbal medium to express stories and contemporary issues in original ways.

The nature of graphic novels fits the expectations for Bethel’s collaborative inquiry courses, said Ami Regier.

“Scholarship is arguing that the graphic novel is a product of a very visual culture,” she said. “The field is interested in interdisciplinary art forms . . . [it uses] both visual narrative and verbal narrative.”

Matt Hershberger, senior physics major from Clay Center, said the course “helped to dispel my pre-conceived notions about comic books” by the depth of the issues it addressed.

“Most graphic novels contain some perspective on society, and the methods of interpretation for graphic novels combine both art and literature,” he said.

“Some people may not associate ‘comic books’ with serious issues. I have found that they can address serious issues, and in some cases bring out specific issues in a way that [standard] books simply cannot.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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