Sticking it to STEM: getting school kids into Politics


This guest post is by Karen Heard-Lauréote, Reader in European Politics at the University of Portsmouth.

My STEM-based colleagues are always going out to “feeder” schools and blowing stuff up (in contained experiments of course), conducting maths magic and playing with Meccano to design crazy structures in an effort to encourage pupils (especially) girls to consider studying one of their subjects at University. And there’s a lot of money sloshing around in the STEM subject promotion kitty to do this.

In the humanities and social sciences we have far-less spectacular tricks up our sleeve to boost interest amongst school pupils in our disciplines and engage them to aspire to apply for one of our courses. Let’s be honest – taster lectures are about as innovative as it sometimes gets when us political scientists do school outreach.

In a climate of decline in humanities and social sciences recruitment and funding, and in a context of widening participation in HE, the time has perhaps come to join our STEM colleagues and put a few fireworks into our own outreach activities.

And so as a keen advocate of active learning in my university-based UG and PG-level pedagogy I thought about using EU political decision-making simulations as an outreach tool in schools. School funding for careers activities and support has hugely reduced in recent years and it turns out that schools are only too willing to get local HE providers in to do such activities – particularly in the last week of term when the teaching staff are exhausted!

The idea is simple. We developed a crisis-meeting scenario which had sufficient verisimilitude to a real phenomenon (in our case the Calais refugee crisis) but reduced the complexity of the decision-making process and took some liberties with the “facts” to make the scenario manageable to simulate in 3 hours and as close to the pupils’ own experience as possible (swapping Calais with Cherbourg, which has a direct ferry route to Portsmouth).

We developed role cards with actors ranging from the CEO of Brittany Ferries, local Council and City leaders, local MPs and local NGO and business groups and went into the school a week before the simulation to assign roles and instruct pupils on how to prepare. A week later we came back and ran the simulation.

It was a hoot!

We saw pupils fully assimilate and inhabit their roles – a few so retrenched in the arguments of their character that they surprised both themselves and their teachers with their enthusiasm for negotiation, problem-solving, diplomacy and use of political rhetoric to persuade others. Political science as a field of study that may have previously been perceived by school pupils as abstract, dry and serious, suddenly came alive, attractive and exciting in the context of the simulation.

So apart from being a great deal of fun, what does this kind of activity tell us about active learning? The results of a pre- and post-event pupil questionnaire showed us three main effects of simulations used in this context.

First, the simulations increased the participants’ interest in pursuing university degrees in fields cognate to EU politics. As such simulations boosted interest in pupils in studying social sciences at University thus raising aspirations and most interestingly, it boosted, more specifically, their interest in studying political science and IR (where many of them placed European politics – but that’s another debate) as University subjects.

Second, the simulations increased the participants’ self-assessed knowledge of EU politics.

Third, the simulations increased the importance participants placed on understanding the workings of the EU.

Taken together, these findings support our claim that EU-related simulations may be used as outreach tools to increase interest in pursuing EU-related subjects at university level.

We may not have safety goggles, Bunsen burners, medical instruments, Meccano sets and the other paraphernalia associated with STEM subjects in humanities and social sciences to wow and amaze school children, but we do have powerful ideas and debates which, with a little nurturing of contacts in schools, we can explore in a fun way through the use of active learning techniques.

Simulations as an outreach tool to boost general interest in HE participation and specific Interest in European politics could be worth a try.

First Annual Teach, Play, Learn Conference

Announcing the first annual Teach, Play, Learn Conference on Friday, June 22, 2018, at Indiana University South Bend. The goals of the conference are to:

  • generate awareness and interest in the changing technologies and pedagogies in the quickly evolving area of educational games and playful learning.
  • demonstrate benefits of using games as part of classroom education.
  • showcase practical solutions for the design and implementation of games in the educational context.

Deadline for proposal submission is April 27. Details are here.

Abandon: Fall 2017 edition

As promised in my last post about teaching risk-averse students, I am going to again apply Simon’s ABC technique to last semester’s teaching. And since I taught two sections of my first-year seminar, I’ll focus on that.

First item on the “abandon” list: in-class peer review of student-designed games. Although I think the rubric that students use to evaluate classmate-designed games is good, they simply refuse to use it to provide honest feedback. I know that the majority of the students understand at least some of the principles reflected by the rubric because of the way they have analyzed the games in the final exam. In the classroom, though, they rate the games as perfect. A potential replacement for the peer review process — and this is really more of a “begin” item — is a short writing assignment after each round of game design in which they compare the game their team designed with another team’s game that they played in class.

Second thing to abandon: my organization of memo-writing assignments. I have assumed, incorrectly, that first-semester college students can grasp the purpose and format of a memo with minimal instruction on my part. After three separate iterations of the assignment, complete with an opportunity to rewrite each memo, I didn’t see significant improvement in the quality of students’ work, which was the same thing that happened in the course last year. A possible solution is to walk students step by step through the mechanics of writing a memo in class, so that by the end of the process they have in their hands a  document that they can submit for a “perfect” grade. But this would remove pretty much any opportunity for students to independently engage in creative thinking, which is another term for problem solving. More holding of students’ hands to protect them from anything they might find unpleasant. I’ll have to think more about how to better organize an assignment like this.

Third item on the list, which is speculative at this point: abandon the whole course. I’ve been teaching this first-year seminar since its inception four years ago, when it came into being through a revision to my university’s general education requirements. The developmental rationale for the course is not well-defined, and the learning outcomes associated with it are mostly not measurable. Valid data on how the course may be of benefit to students simply isn’t being collected, which means that it is really nothing but an empty three-credit curricular requirement. While I think the topic on which I have built the course is a good one, I am finding it less enjoyable to teach over time. And interaction with university administrators about aspects of teaching it have been less than satisfactory. So, if I have the opportunity in future fall semesters not to teach the course, I might take it.

Simulating EU foreign policy

Goddess of Fortune, before you ask

Despite what we here at ALPS like to make you think, other groups do work on simulations and active learning in political science and international relations. And because everyone’s a lovely person around here, we all get on famously with each other.

One of those groups is the Europe-wide group that used to run under the ANTERO label, and which has now become NORTIA. Funded by the EU, it’s a network of academics working on EU foreign policy, covering both research and teaching. As ANTERO, they managed to build up a really good rep as the people to go to for such things.

One of their more recent outputs is a handbook on simulations.

As well as useful info on designing such things, with links to video, they also provide full documentation for a simulation of handling a crisis in Ukraine.

I’ll recommend it to you despite my (small) involvement, not least because it draws out some more of the issues surrounding application to a specific subject area, which will be use to you, whether or not you’re working in it or not.

In so doing, it invites us to think once again about the difficulties of translating from generic to specific, which is often a barrier to implementing active learning techniques. However, the effort is well worth it, as these materials show really well.

I’ll also remind you that it’s very nearly the deadline for the ECPR Joint Sessions: sun, sand and simulations. But without the sand.

Amoeba Game

I’ve been telling students in my first-year seminar that the design of a good game often simultaneously combines chance, strategy, competition, and cooperation. About a month ago I invented a simple game to demonstrate how this could be accomplished.

I took the class outside, defined starting and finishing lines — about twenty-five meters apart — and divided the class into teams. The game had only one rule: every person on a team had to keep his or her left hand on the right foot of another teammate. First team to reach the finish line “won” the game.  Continue reading

Extending Simulations without Becoming Overextended

Today we have another guest post by Joel D. Moore of Monash University Malaysia. He can be reached at joel [dot] moore [at]

Simulations are hard work. Extended simulations that occur over multiple class periods are doubly so. Instructors must invest substantial effort to set them up and even more to monitor them once they are running. The decentralized learning that makes them so effective also makes it hard to fairly and transparently assess participants. Thus, instructors may be dissuaded from employing them despite their pedagogical benefits.

Social networking software (SNS) can reduce these burdens. With some slight customization, an SNS can be used to efficiently capture most forms of student interaction in a way that is easily accessed by the instructor. SNSs are equipped with user-centered messaging, chat, blog, group, event notification, and file sharing capabilities. SNSs also feature optional plug-ins that can be used to further enrich the experience. They can easily serve as a mechanism for simulation participants to communicate with each other, while allowing instructors to monitor events in real time with no additional work on the part of the students. Another benefit of using an SNS is that once one creates the architecture of a simulation, it can be redeployed instantly for a future class, or quickly modified for another simulation that has a similar array of roles. Continue reading

Where Do Flash Games Go to Die?

Related to my recent post on replacing traditional textbooks with digital content:

For the last two years, I have used the Stop Disasters! game in my course on humanitarian emergencies, which is online. A significant number of the students are outside the USA when they take it. Stop Disasters! runs on Flash. Flash is an application that has been incompatible with Apple devices for years and its owner, Adobe, will cease supporting it entirely in 2020. Web browsers now require installation of special plugins and whatnot to run it. This means that my students may not be able to play this game without jumping through a bunch of technological hoops, a burden that I can’t justify imposing on them.

Unfortunately a lot of online pedagogical games and simulations are Flash-based; a few that have been discussed on this blog include Ayiti: The Game of Life3rd World Farmer, and Inside Disaster. Clicking on the link for the simulation at the Inside Disaster website produces a black screen, so it is no longer accessible whether one has Flash running or not.

These online tools have an irritating tendency to have short lifespans, which to me greatly lessons their convenience. Board games don’t end up in the technological dustbin of history at anywhere near the same speed. Maybe it’s time to switch back to exercises based on tangible objects rather than software applications. But how does one do that in the online environment?


Fixing Health Care? A Simulation in American Government

Today we have a guest post from Josiah Marineau, an assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University. He can be contacted at josiah [dot] marineau [at] gmail [dot] com.

For my Introduction to American Government course, I designed a simulation of the legislative process in which students are tasked with debating different policy options for the U.S. healthcare system. The simulation is intended to  familiarize students to a key policy debate in contemporary U.S. politics.

The simulation will last two weeks. The first week will be preparation:  explaining the politics of the U.S. health care system, the main options for policymakers, and how the simulation  will work. Students will be introduced to the rules used in Model United Nations to govern debate and voting on bills. Students will use materials I provide to write policy position papers that advocate for a given policy solution to the challenges facing the U.S. health care system.

The simulation itself will run in the second week, over two class periods. Students will use their policy papers as the basis for debate and will give speeches in class in favor of or in opposition to proposed legislation. I expect them to form coalitions with other, like-minded students, and draft a bill that is amenable to a majority of the class.

As part of the debriefing, students will write a two-page memo reflecting on what they learned, what surprised them, what worked and what did not, and why. This memo will be due in the week after the simulation concludes.

I will grade the simulation as follows:

  • Quality of the policy position papers — 40%
  • Level of engagement in the simulation — 30%
  • Two-page reflection memo — 30%.

I will share the results of the simulation in a future post.