Politics and Pleasures of Chocolate, anyone?

Most popular majors in college lead to steady careers in traditional fields such as nursing, engineering, psychology and business.

But more and more these fields and newer ones—fraud investigation or drone operation, for example—are inspiring unusual courses that can make learning more interesting and fun. There’s “Magic, Medicine and Science,” “Caveman,” or “Electronic and Computer Music” at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, and courses in “Organizational Behavior” and “Negotiation” at Carnegie Mellon University.

Schools in and around Pittsburgh have plenty of nontraditional courses that provide practical knowledge while thinking outside the box — and are preparing students for new and different careers.

Take “Wines, Ciders and Meads” at Chatham University, which teaches students to make wines and meads from local fruits and honey.

“I have a penchant for rhubarb—a rhubarb cider sounds awesome to me,” says professor Sally Frey, who taught “Sustainable Fermentation” at Chatham’s Eden Hall campus this summer. That course explains the basics of fermentation—everything from pickled vegetables and fermented grains to root beer, beer, sake and vinegar.Chatham’s Eden Hall campus this summer. That course explains the basics of fermentation—everything from pickled vegetables and fermented grains to root beer, beer, sake and vinegar.

A chef who studied and worked in Paris, Frey encourages her students to develop recipes.

“They’re far more creative than I would ever be,” she says. “One of my favorites was a kale stem pickle, taking an item that’s often thrown away or used for compost and making it delicious. So it’s pickles way beyond cucumbers, and it’s international flavors.”

Though she provides practical knowledge about fermentation—“It’s in so many foods, it’s coffee, the flavor in chocolate,” Frey says—the course also looks at bigger issues such as sustainable culinary practices.

A beekeeper and chocolate connoisseur, Frey also teaches a “Politics and Pleasures of Chocolate” class. “Oh my goodness, don’t you want to take that?” she laughs. Yet it, too, looks at serious issues involving global commodities such as ethical implications of purchasing and best practices of production.

Like Frey’s courses, the La Roche College “Global Development and Humanitarian Aid Training Program” draws students from near and far. In its third year, the two-week program offers certification in humanitarian aid.

With so many conflicts, earthquakes, floods, weather emergencies, and other disasters, the training can be valuable for engineers and others who respond and help with rebuilding, says professor Jeff Ritter, who chairs the Communication, Media and Technology Department at La Roche.

A recent group who took the class in humanitarian aid at LaRoche College. Photo courtesy of LaRoche College.

“There’s people who work all over the world in these things, and they’re pretty well paid. It can be a dangerous but viable career path,” Ritter says.

La Roche contracts with RedR, a United Kingdom company that trains lifesavers, and asks local experts to lead workshops for the program. Students learn global treaties and laws, while simulated disasters require them to apply teamwork, creative thinking and cultural sensitivity.

“It’s very intense,” Ritter says, noting that groups such as Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children “don’t want just anybody, and they don’t want to put you into a scary or stressful situation if you don’t have any training.” Humanitarian aid is “much different than development tourism, where everything is arranged and you do something helpful for a short amount of time.”

The Community College of Allegheny County offered the first drone class in the area, a three-week class open to the public and offered through the county’s Workforce Development Program. The class is intended for anyone who wants to safely and legally fly drones, or start a new business or career. And yes, the drone comes with the class along with the training needed to pass the required FAA test.

And then there’s fraud and forensics 

At Carlow University, professor Diane Matthews teaches “Comprehensive Fraud Investigation,” the capstone course for a master’s of science in fraud and forensics. Teams of students act as forensic, white-collar crime auditors to investigate and uncover multiple frauds. They follow the money trail to determine who committed the fraud and how, and its financial impact.

It’s a massive undertaking, requiring teamwork to examine 20 to 30 documents in four weeks’ time, says Matthews.

“The students go crazy when they get a key piece of information,” she says, adding that it’s great fun. In their fifth week, they write a report following standards set by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. “You have to prove your case. The students end up loving this course.”

A CPA by trade, Matthews tapped Pittsburgh executives to learn what corporations and organizations want in an auditor and developed a course to cover the gamut—fraud prevention, detection, investigation and remediation. Many of her students have become prosecutors, though most work for banks, credit card companies, insurers or health care institutions.

“Unfortunately, fraud is just proliferating,” she says. “I think ethical behavior is not what it used to be.”

Stephen Paul is teaching “Methods in Behavioral Research,” “Cognitive Psychology” and “Sensation & Perception” this fall at Robert Morris University. His 14-week night class, “The Psychology of Paranormal Beliefs,” filled up fast. The elective course brings together topics from various fields of psychology to explain why people develop and maintain paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs.

Essentially, says Paul, he teaches students to doubt. He doesn’t try to change beliefs. He wants his students to examine where beliefs come from, and to look at standards of evidence.

“I think scientific critical thinking is where things should start,” Paul says. “I show them how easy it is to be fooled. They need to doubt, and especially they need to doubt themselves because a lot of belief comes from fooling yourself into thinking you know everything you need to know.”

But people can start out in their adult life with a belief in something that turns out to be fake, says Paul. “The internet and TV have just filled the world with these strange beliefs, changing the way people believe about the world that isn’t very sensible and opens them up to being tricked, or taken advantage of.”

He doesn’t rule out paranormal phenomena, however. “I think everybody has an experience, sometime in their life, they can’t explain or understand,” Paul says. “One of the things we talk about in class is how we deal with things like that.

“Humans do not like not knowing. We don’t like ambiguity. We look for something reasonable, and then if we can’t find that, the next best thing is to take something that turns out to be unreasonable. You can’t explain everything—there’s so much we don’t know.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.