With the challenges of climate change, hunger and dwindling freshwater supplies, educators have begun an academic movement to produce a new generation of leaders who will safeguard and help sustain essential resources. The MacArthur Foundation recently committed $15 million to jump-start a two-year master’s in development practice (MDP) program at a dozen institutions across the globe. Columbia University will be the first to offer the degree, starting in the fall of 2009, and schools in various countries, including Ghana, Nigeria and China, may follow suit in the next few years.

This effort is significant because “most of the training programs throughout the world do not address sustainable development in a global way,” says Goolam Mohamedbhai, secretary general of the Association of African Universities and part of the MDP’s international commission.

The MDP movement plans to rectify such gaps by creating an international classroom that cuts across disciplines—including public health, social science, physical science and management—as well as issues such as poverty, hunger, disease control and climate change. The program will link affiliated universities worldwide through real-time online lectures and discussion panels, plus six months of field training in developing countries. Organizers hope that eventually the MDP’s global classroom will inspire additional universities to adopt similar curricula.