An Excel-lent Simulation

Steven JacksonToday we have a guest post from Steven Jackson, professor of political science at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at sjackson[at]iup[dot]edu.

It’s there on your computer: Microsoft Excel.  Maybe you use it to calculate grades.  Maybe you use it for charts in your PowerPoints.  Maybe you just ignore it.  But have you ever thought of teaching with it?

Excel can be used in instruction in a number of ways, from a simple interactive graphing tool, to a random number generator that is much more flexible than dice, to a sophisticated engine for designing interactive simulations.

For my introductory World Politics course, I designed an Excel-based role-play simulation in which students act as a U.S. trade representative in the late 1980s. Players must satisfy different parties involved in a trade negotiation: the U.S. President who wants a minimal number of trade agreements; the protectionist “Senator Maddux” who opposes too many concessions, and the Japanese, who want their own issues favorably resolved, all within a fairly short time period.  Failure to meet all four criteria results in the user getting “fired.” Each of the twenty possible issues in the simulation is based upon an actual dispute between the U.S. and Japan. Continue reading

A Simulation in Global Development: Guest Post from Dr. Kevin Pallister

Guest Contributor Dr. Kevin Pallister of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth joins us today to introduce his new negotiation simulation, recently published in PS: Political Science & Politics (April 2015). Dr. Pallister can be reached at kpallister@umassd.edu and is willing to share all of his simulation materials upon request.

Dr. Kevin Pallister — U-Mass, Dartmouth

Teaching undergraduate students about international financial institutions and issues of economic development can be challenging, especially in an introductory political science class with lots of non-polisci majors. Teaching a large (90-student) introductory international relations class a couple of years ago, I thought of how best to help my students learn about economic globalization and development. This led me to develop a negotiation-based simulation to teach students about the conflicts of interest and potential for cooperation on issues of international economic globalization and development. This was the first time I designed a simulation, and only the second time I had run a simulation in the classroom (after earlier in the course running G. Dale Thomas’ excellent “Isle of Ted” simulation).

This simulation is designed to teach students a number of key concepts in the areas of IPE, globalization and development, such as the role of power, collective action problems, bargaining tactics, and naming and shaming efforts of NGOs.

Continue reading

Arts and Crafts day… aka Exploring Global Inequality and Poverty

This is a guest post from Leanne Powner, Visiting Assistant Professor in Government at Christopher Newport University.  Leanne is also the author of the Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide.

To begin my unit on global poverty and inequality in Introduction to International Relations, I asked students to pick a poor country from a list that I provided and use the World Bank World Development Indicators databank to extract information on population, GDP, and GDP per capita, as well as the composition of the national economy (percent from industry, services, and agriculture). We then constructed scale models of the size and composition of the economies out of three colors of crepe paper; they input their GDP and composition data into a Google spreadsheet which calculated the length of the streamers. Students attached the streamers to a sheet of paper showing the country name, GDP, GDP per capita, and population, and we taped them to the board. We compared these to ones I had made showing the US, Russia, and the Philippines (middle-income). This all seemed fine – the US’s was a bit excessive (see below) – until I explained that the scale on their models was 10 times greater than the scale of mine. 20151119_161829Their 29 cm streamer would have been 2.9 cm using the scale for the US/etc ones. I drew this on one of the posters to demonstrate and showed them a model for Ethiopia (a low-income country) on the same scale as the US and Russia.

The difference in streamer lengths was staggering and really gave students a good idea of how relatively wealthy the US is. When presenting the streamers that I had made, I taped them to the bottom of the projector screen and presented them in the order of Philippines, Russia, US. The R
ussia one trailed on the floor, but after taping the US one to the screen, I retracted the screen up to the ceiling…. then rolled the ball of crepe paper all the way to the back of the classroom…. and then all the way back to the front again…. and there was still a pile of crepe paper left on the floor. Ethiopia’s, in contrast, was only about 6″ long. It was an absolutely priceless teaching moment for $3 in dollar-store crepe paper.

The basic spreadsheet, which includes a sheet that calculates streamer length from student data, can be found here. I am happy to share additional materials from this project on request to leanne.powner@gmail.com .

Using The Stop Disasters Game

Stop DisastersA few years ago Amanda reviewed the online Stop Disasters game. This particular simulation dropped off my radar until a colleague recently reminded me of it. Coincidentally I begin teaching an online graduate course on complex humanitarian emergencies in a few weeks, so I decided to incorporate an evaluation of Stop Disasters into the course as an assignment. Here are the instructions that I’ve created for the assignment:

Go to the Stop Disasters website. Choose a language and a scenario (tsunami, hurricane, wildfire, earthquake, or flood). Play the game a few times, until you understand its mechanics–try to win the game. Write an evaluation of the simulation that focuses on:

  • Playability: is Stop Disasters fun, engaging, and educational to play? Are the rules to learn and the user interface easy to navigate?
  • Realism: does Stop Disasters model reality well? Given your knowledge of complex humanitarian emergencies, does the simulation present the user with with realistic choices and outcomes? What course readings support your assessment of the simulation’s realism? Why?
  • Relevance: is Stop Disasters relevant to community members and policymakers? Why? What course readings support your assessment of the simulation’s relevance?

Here is the rubric I created for assessing students’ work (my apologies for blurriness; it’s a function of the screen capture used to snag the image):

Stop Disasters Rubric

I’ll report back after the course ends in December on whether this assignment succeeded or failed.

Death of a Simulation . . . ? Inside Disaster/Haiti

Inside Disaster Screenshot

Over the last few years I’ve been using the Inside Disaster website for teaching about humanitarian emergencies, poverty, and other subjects. Inside Disaster was created by a Canadian team that followed the Red Cross into Haiti in 2010 to document its post-earthquake relief operations. The results of the team’s work included a three-part film documentary, an interactive first-person role-play video simulation, and other original content that it made available for free online. The documentary provided an emotionally-gripping inside look into disaster response operations. The simulation was the best that I’ve seen in its genre. The entire site functioned as an extremely high-quality educational resource. More details about the project can be found in the documentary trailer and in its press kit.

I put the preceding paragraph in the past tense because a few days ago I discovered that the website was down. After some poking around I connected with Katie McKenna, the producer for Inside Disaster and currently the founder and principal of Working Knowledge. Here is her response to my query (published here with her permission):

Inside Disaster is dear to everyone who put it together and we’re so happy it’s been of use to you and other educators.

The problem we’ve run into is that the hosting and streaming costs have gotten prohibitive.  My colleagues who created it have since closed down their company and moved on to other projects. They’ve been paying the hosting costs out of pocket because we all care about Inside Disaster so much.

It costs approximately CAD$2000 (about US$1500) a year for the streaming and hosting charges.  If folks could come up two-thirds of that I’m sure I could raise the rest through allies here. Do you know of anyone who would be interested in contributing a portion of the hosting costs as a license fee to keep things going? If so, they can contact me at katie[at]getworkingknowledge[dot]com.

So I throw this plea out to the digital void: If you have an interest in keeping alive an online tool for teaching about emergency management, humanitarian assistance, journalism, international politics, or Haiti, or just want your students to have access to a great simulation on decision making during a crisis, feel free to contact Ms. McKenna.

Tragedy of the Bunnies: Revised with in-class options

The original February 2015 post was substantially edited in September 2015 to reflect the unavailability of the original online game.  Tragedy of the Bunnies was taken offline in April 2015, but returned again in March 2016.

Tragedy of the Bunnies is a free online game that quickly teaches the basic lesson of the Tragedy of the Commons.  It takes less than 5 minutes to play and was rather an elegant way of introducing the lesson to students, ideally as homework assignment the night before a class discussion on the topic. It has a checkered online history–it was offline for a year from February 2015-2016, and returned again in March 2016. The principles of the game are easily recreated in a classroom exercise, useful to have in case the game goes offline again.

In the online game, you play as a bunny merchant who make their living by catching bunnies and selling them as pets to children.  You start out playing the ‘public game’, where there is an open field of bunnies and you want to catch as many bunnies as possible before your competitors snatch them up.  If you try to avoid catching some, the other merchants will clear the field, leaving you with nothing and the fields empty of bunnies.  Everyone loses in the public game, because the population iss completely depleted and your future employment prospects are bleak.  You then play the private game, where the open field of bunnies is now divided by fences, and you own some of the bunnies outright.  The private game is played in two rounds, and any rabbits left in round 1 would triple in number for round 2, allowing you to maximize the number of rabbits caught while also preserving future stock.

Quick, fun, and instructive, the bunny game is therefore a great teaching tool as an introduction to the basic logic and implications of the depletion of the commons.  As its online presence is unreliable, though, let’s think through some ways we can recreate this in the classroom.

One way would be to simply keep a tally on the board.  Note that there are 30 bunnies in the pasture, draw a simple indicator of each bunny, and designate 3 players. The goal is to get a minimum of 20 bunnies; the winner is the player who gets the most bunnies beyond 20 (failing to get 20 means they lose).  Give each player a different colored marker or chalk, and either have them circle a bunny in term, or give them 10 seconds to circle as many bunnies as they can to claim them.  Tell them that any bunnies left in the pasture will procreate in the next round, but do not allow the players to communicate (as the other two players in the online game were AI-controlled).  If all 3 players seem unwilling to claim any bunnies in the first ‘public’ round, you can invite another student to come up and claim them–after all, the bunnies are on common land and anyone can hunt them.

Next, redraw the bunnies, but divide them into 3 groups of 10, and tell the players they can only hunt their own bunnies.  See if this time, they allow some to stay around and procreate–since they triple in value between round 1 and 2, it would be very easy to get 20 bunnies this way.

You could also involve the entire class in this and make it more physical by planting ‘bunnies’ around the classroom–I used wadded up pieces of colored paper–and letting the students race each other to collect them.  The same rules work–any ‘bunnies’ left undisturbed will triple in the 2nd round.  In the private round, i give each student their own collection of bunnies and let them turn in as many as they want in each round, again with them tripling in the 2nd round.

These in-class versions of the game will take more time than the online version did–perhaps 20-30 minutes, rather than the 5 minutes Tragedy of the Bunnies demanded.  But it is still worthwhile to consider playing out the game with your students, as it really can help them understand this essential concept.