The University of Michigan’s Theme Semester for Winter 2020 will center around the Great Lakes. Sponsored by the School of Literature, Science and the Arts, the Great Lakes Theme Semester will feature classes and events focused on issues dealing with the Great Lakes region. 

English Department Chair David Porter, who serves as the Great Lakes Theme Semester Steering Committee director, said the committee hopes the theme semester will promote wide-ranging conversations about the history of the Great Lakes and how it has impacted the environment, culture and politics of the region the University calls home.

“The Great Lakes Theme Semester will create a space for conversation on campus about the region we live in,” Porter said. “LSA traditionally has a global focus, and not as much attention has been paid to the specific region (where the University is located).”

LSA senior Leo Chumack, a Program in the Environment major, said he thinks the Great Lakes Theme Semester will help students and faculty at the University pay more attention to the region. Chumack said he believes it is important for humans to protect the environment, noting the impact of climate change will be particularly significant in Michigan.

“As climate change exacerbates, (the Great Lakes) are going to be an even more valuable assets than they already are,” Chumack said. “We’re going to be running out of fresh water, and if it’s not me who’s not going to have access to this water, it’s the next generation that will be unable to thrive due to the elimination of this really precious natural resource.”

During the Winter 2020 semester, 54 courses will be offered pertaining to the Great Lakes Theme Semester. These courses will be featured in multiple departments within LSA as well as across the Ford School of Public Policy, College of Engineering,  School for Environment, Taubman and at the University’s Biological Station.  

In addition to courses, other events such as guest lecturers, films and exhibits will be brought to campus. Multiple partners outside of the University plan to collaborate on projects related to the Great Lakes throughout the course of the semester. 

Jen Read, University Water Center director, is a member of the Steering Committee and is working to create curricula centered around the Great Lakes. Read co-teaches a master’s level course primarily focused on environmental case studies, which she said she plans to share with other professors who would like to implement them in their syllabi. Read also said her and her colleagues are planning a panel series that will bring in guests to talk about different topics related to the Great Lakes.

In learning about the Great Lakes through these classes and events, Read said she hopes students may consider a career path geared towards protecting the region.

“Everything from that level of appreciation all the way up to potentially getting students excited enough about the Great Lakes to seek out job opportunities, we really are looking for our next generation of leaders, and Michigan is the best place to generate that from,” Read said.

The Great Lakes Theme Semester will also incorporate organizations from outside the University like Great Lakes Now, a news outlet focused on the Great Lakes.  Great Lakes Now Program Director Sandra Svoboda said her organization plans to become involved with the Great Lakes Theme Semester and is currently in discussion about what their involvement will look like. 

Like Read, Svoboda said she is excited the University is using the Theme Semester to highlight opportunities the Great Lakes bring to the region.

“This really offers an infinite number of ways … that U of M, with this theme semester, can further an organization, use their resources and network to have really dynamic events and opportunities in Ann Arbor and beyond next semester,” Svoboda said.

Joel Stone, senior curator for the Detroit Historical Society, said the Theme Semester is an important way for the University to educate students on the Great Lakes.

“The (Great Lakes) resources are so important to who we have been, who we are and hopefully who we’re going to be in the future,” Stone said. “Everybody who lives in this area or everybody who lives in the country should understand how important these resources are.”

Although the role the Detroit Historical Society will play in the Theme Semester has not been entirely defined, Stone said the organization hopes to bring in an intern from the University to work with the collection as well as host lectures or symposia at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit. 

Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the environmental advocacy nonprofit For the Love of Water, said her organization also plans to collaborate with the University. She said the upcoming semester is the perfect time to focus on the Great Lakes as 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Michigan Environmental Protection Act.

“We have 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water, and as Michiganders in the Great Lakes State, surrounded by four of five freshwater lakes, we have an extraordinary stewardship responsibility,” Kirkwood said. “For us to partner and work with the interdisciplinary team at the University of Michigan in conceiving of what this semester looks like is a real honor.”

Kirkwood said FLOW would like to bring storytelling to the Great Lakes conversation at the University. She said the organization is working on bringing water-related authors to campus to cultivate these discussions. 

Through collaboration with a variety of regional partners, Porter said the Great Lakes Theme Semester aligns with University President Mark Schlissel’s commitment to engage University students and faculty within the community.

 “We hope to tie into and reinforce the University’s increasing emphasis on public engagement,” Porter said. “This theme semester will reflect President Schlissel’s message of the responsibility we have as a public university of service the community we are a part of.”

Read said she is excited to see what the Great Lakes Theme Semester will bring to the University campus. She explained she thinks the theme will give students and faculty members the opportunity to become better educated and more involved with the Great Lakes.

“There’s a ton of really smart, interested and engaged folks who I think once we introduce them to all the challenges and issues that are Great Lakes-related and opportunities, I think we have a way to mobilize for the benefit of the region,” Read said.

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