SIR — Ours is a world in crisis. We are despoiling our habitat, outstripping our resources and failing to provide an acceptable living standard for much of the world's population. Although academic institutions are equipped to help remedy these problems by informing the leaders of tomorrow, they often fail to do so. Increasing pressure for specialization has led universities to trade breadth for depth in curricula, thereby depriving students of an understanding of complex, interconnected global issues. For example, solutions to our energy crisis span economics, engineering and politics, yet the typical student is exposed to only a portion of this spectrum.

Here, we propose a first step in addressing such shortcomings. We, the undersigned graduate students, have created a campus-wide 'State of the Planet' course at Cornell University under the mentorship of faculty members Tom Eisner and Mary Lou Zeeman (see

Our goal is threefold: to improve understanding of complex issues; to add global context to disciplinary education; and to motivate action and involvement. To this end, we recruited experts, mostly resident faculty members and community leaders, to address the challenges we agreed were paramount.

Administrative support was quick to materialize, as was a pool of enthusiastic participants. We launched the course in January 2007, after campus-wide publicity highlighting its multidisciplinary nature. Our 250 current students come from 45 different majors ranging broadly across the humanities and basic and applied sciences. In lectures, experts familiar with our most pressing global problems emphasize how solutions span disciplines. Students participate in discussion groups led by graduate assistants, where they not only build on ideas presented in lectures, but also set up projects aimed at solving problems.

Mid-semester student evaluations have been overwhelmingly positive, with 93% saying that the course has changed their views on education, career plans and lifestyle, and 95% believing that their peers should also take this course.

Comments include: “This course has influenced my perspectives on almost everything, from the food I eat to how long I leave my computer on” and “The course demonstrates how many different skills and backgrounds can help shape policy that is instrumental for the planet.”

We are continuing to expand our course in the hope that it will become a campus-wide requirement. Our vision is that other universities will adopt similar courses as a curriculum component for all students. We extend an open invitation to like-minded people at other institutions to join us, and others launching parallel efforts, in what we believe will be a modest but fundamental change to university education.

We maintain the optimistic belief that, given the right information, people will change their habits and their world. But the burden is on us, as educators, to motivate this change.