Students learn to crochet sleeping mats for homeless as part of new class

Professor Tami Carmichael knows the importance of weaving connections.

This spring semester at the University of North Dakota, Carmichael has been sharing that knowledge with students in her “Wicked World Problems” course – not through mere lectures and taking notes – but through creating solutions and making a difference.

Students in UND Professor Tami Carmichael’s new “Wicked World Problems” course crochet light-weight plastic sleeping mats for homeless people as a way to combat one real-world problem -- homelessness. The students were taught how to make the mats, using plastic pieces or “plarn,” by Kathryn Sweney, a lecturer in the UND Department of English.
Students in UND Professor Tami Carmichael’s new “Wicked World Problems” course crochet light-weight plastic sleeping mats for homeless people as a way to combat one real-world problem — homelessness. The students were taught how to make the mats, using plastic pieces or “plarn,” by Kathryn Sweney, a lecturer in the UND Department of English.

The new course offering is part of the school’s Humanities & Integrated Studies department, which Carmichael directs. It provides students with the opportunity to study and define the nature of various so-called “wicked” world problems, to consider the ethics of solving those problems and to participate in hands-on experiences that can help the students devise realistic models for developing solutions.

A unique aspect of the course is that it involves two different departments at UND: Integrated Studies and Entrepreneurship. The combination is providing new opportunities for both sets of students.

“The course first came about by talking to Professor LaRoyce Batchelor and Director Tim O’Keefe from Entrepreneurship and discussing how important it is for people to work across boundaries,” Carmichael said. “The folks from these two departments discussed problems in the world today and how they wanted students to see that they are capable of solving those problems if they have the tools necessary.”

“Sometimes it just takes a few basic skill sets to help you to create an entrepreneurial activity to solve a problem.”

Focus on homelessness

One major world problem of today is homelessness, but it’s not the only problem the course covers. The course also addresses environmental issues, urban renewal, poverty, violence against women and children and much more. A lot of research is done over the course of the semester.

As for the hands-on portion of the course, one of the projects the UND students have been working on is crocheting mats for homeless people to use while trying to survive outdoors. Through the course, students learned to recycle used plastic shopping bags by using them to crochet sleeping mats.

The mats provide moisture barriers for those who must live outdoors for periods at a time. The mats are light-weight, easy to carry, can be rinsed, and the plarn — or plastic — in them naturally resists insects.

Senior Lecturer of English Kathryn Sweney participated in this course by teaching some of the students how to crotchet the mats for the homeless.

“It’s always satisfying to watch students take something that you’re trying to teach and running with it,” Sweney said. “One of the students had a real struggle with trying to crotchet the mats and it was a great feeling to watch the student put in extra time and come in over his lunch break to keep working on it until he got it down. It just shows that you can accomplish anything once you really put your mind to it.”

Donating mats
On any given night, there are more than 600,000 homeless people in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Development. More than 138,000 of those people are children under the age of 18.

The students are working to complete as many as 15 mats this semester and will donate them to local homeless shelters, including Grand Forks’ Northlands Rescue Mission. Representatives of Northlands recently visited the UND class to discuss their operation and to answer questions about helping the homeless.