A great resource for anyone teaching courses in environmental or energy politics, World Without Oil is an alternate reality game that took place in 2007, where participants imagined how their lives would change as a result of a steep increase in the price of oil, followed by a sharp decrease in supply over the course of 32 weeks.
The designers created ten lesson plans that use the material created during the game, all of them available at the game’s website. There are some great tools here–videos, blogs, comics, news articles–to create the alternate reality of the game world, along with group activities, individual projects, discussion questions, and action items. You can use as much or as little of the lesson plans as you like.
In lesson one, for example, students are introduced to the simulation by being told that gas has jumped to $4.12/gallon and that there are rumors of a shortage coming. A video and comic entry accompany this news. After reviewing some important concepts, students discuss how they will respond in groups and are then given some blog entries written by others to which they can compare their responses. In the ensuing group discussion, you can review and then quiz the students on the extent of petroleum use in the world economy. Finally, students are asked to reflect by blogging their own intended reaction to the news about gas prices.
I’m using the game in my upper level seminar on Environmental and Energy Security as an extra credit project. On Thursdays we learn how the oil shortage has progressed this week, do some of the related activities, and students earn extra points by writing blog entries documenting their own experiences on the course website. I used it once before without the extra credit component and the students gave the exercises high marks. I’ve found that its a good way to get students talking about a global issue from a very local and individual perspective and that it therefore helps them see such connections in other topics in the course.
Sometimes something as simple as changing our environment can make a big difference in our teaching. I’ve experienced this twice over this summer in two completely different ways. First I’ve traded out (too) sunny, (too) hot St. Louis for cool and rainy London, via an exchange program at my university that allows me to teach at our campus here. The two classes (sorry, ‘modules’) I’m offering are both repeats for me, but they have been sincere creative challenges. Adapting to a new location required a lot of reflection on my courses and how well they would meet the needs of a different set of students. Turns out, they required quite a bit of revision: classes here meet for four hours, not two; six weeks rather than sixteen; and Americans are the minority nationality. Usually I find myself using American politics examples to keep my St. Louis students in familiar territory, and often have to criticize the US to generate their critical thinking skills; here, I had to avoid the too-easy American example, and found myself in the odd position of defending the US to challenge the constant critical stream from my students. Combine this with learning new technology systems, administrative tasks, and a new campus and city, and its been as much a learning experience for me as my students. Changing it up a bit in terms of my personal location has done wonders for reinvigorating my teaching.
For the classroom, too, it can make a difference. Forcing the students to get up and actually move their desks may be a chore, but the physical environment does affect the way students interact in the classroom. In groupwork, make the students get up and move their desks so they face each other and are physically separated from other groups. If playing a game, make them move all the chairs to the side so they can’t stay seated and thus avoid interaction. And in discussion, sit in a circle (yes, us too) so that they are forced to talk to each other, rather than individually interacting with the professor. Better yet, if the class is small enough, change the environment entirely and move out of the classroom. An informal setting at a cafe, park, or study room can shock students out of the classroom norms and get them to really engage with each other.
I was lucky enough to have a small graduate class this summer, just five students after the first class. This is a discussion-based seminar, so the next class, a sunny day, we sat outside on the campus lawn. I drew on the back of a sheet of paper when the blackboard would have been used (later I borrowed a student’s Ipad. I need one of those!). From then on, we met at the cafe on campus. The informal setting helped the students relax and they ended up talking to each other, rather than to me–and this never prevented me from taking control of the conversation as needed. It also made asking ‘hey, what do YOU think?’ seems less of an instructor’s demand for participation than a normal, conversational request for the quiet person’s thoughts.