A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO LIFE AND LEARNING
Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 01:11
Professor Phoenix Mourning-Star didn’t take the traditional route into teaching and he doesn’t design typical courses.
“I actually dropped out of high school when I was 16 and a lot of that was almost 100 percent boredom in school,” said Mourning-Star, who teaches a global economic crises class at CU Denver. “Both teachers and faculty always seemed to have very little experience outside of a classroom.”
After he left high school, Mourning-Star set out to enjoy life. He lived out of his van and bounced between the ski hills in Colorado and the beaches of southern California. But he hadn’t given up on school completely.
“When I would get bored, I would take a few classes,” Mourning-Star said. He used those classes as inspiration for his travel plans. “Once I figured out what I wanted to do [while] sitting in a class, I would usually take the next semester or so off and go travel. Eventually, I got to a point in 2000 that, I could actually finish a degree if I just stayed at school and worked on it so that’s what I did.”
From Dec. 2012 until Jan. 2013, Mourning-Star traveled to Afghanistan to work on a project to convert poppy seeds into biofuel that could be used by Afghan farmers. “It was really scary going there…working on trying not to get shot or kidnapped while trying to propose a working collaboration with poppy narcotic farmers,” Mourning-Star said.
Despite the danger, it was important to Mourning-Star to go to Afghanistan himself to understand the people and environment that would be affected by this project. “My going there was able to build friendships and fellowship and trust that’s always missing because typically in the news we think of Afghanistan as being this corrupt place where drug dealers run rampant and policy makers are all corrupt.”
All these experiences and contacts not only enhance Mourning-Star’s project, but also enhance his classes. He says that the decline in enrollment in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields is due to students’ perception of these areas as boring. “[Students] have this feeling that matches up a lot with the feeling I had in high school—it’s just not fun, it’s boring, it’s rote memory, there’s not a connection with real world aspects.”
Along with accounts of his own experience, Mourning-Star brings real world data into the classroom. “Rather than taking books to analyze…[students] will hear some data that I have collected,” Mourning-Star said. “So here’s the real life data that you’re working with. So don’t just treat it like ‘oh there’s some answer you can get out of a book’ because sometimes that’s just as much of a learning process of realizing that ‘oh this is just real, raw, ugly data and it doesn’t necessarily turn out nicely.’”
Much of Mourning-Star’s life is consumed by his work, but his work is also his play. “[I’m] working on what [I] love to do,” Mourning-Star said, “so it doesn’t always seem like work.”