How Simulations Teach you about Real Life: a Tornado as a Teaching Tool

Adaptability.  Quick thinking.  Time management.  We’d all agree, I think, that these skills are essential to running a good simulation.  Often the instructor has to facilitate the action, responding to new ideas that the students bring to the table, making decisions with little time to think them through that may affect the course of the sim or game, and managing time to make sure that you still had a chance to debrief after finishing the entire exercise.

I need to run some more of these, because these skills utterly failed me yesterday in my non-work life.

Its minor news, but yesterday a tornado touched down in a suburb of St. Louis called University City.  This is unusual–we do get twisters in St. Louis, but they usually head north or south of the city, and U City is one of the inner suburbs that form the wider metropolis, and an actual tornado touching down there is fairly rare.  This one came down briefly about 2 miles from my home, causing a little bit of damage (F-0 to F-1) during its brief time on the ground but thankfully no loss of life.

I did not grow up in the Midwest, but over the last 15 years I’ve gotten used to tornados.  If the sirens go off, you turn the TV on, see where the cell is, and only head to a basement if the storm is headed to your area.  Since the warning goes out for the whole county, this is generally sound strategy.  Usually you have a good twenty minutes to prepare between the time that rotation is noticed and when the cell is in the city itself.

Yesterday, however, the text alert and sirens went off only 4 minutes before the tornado touched down at 524am.  By the time I got out of bed and got to the TV (moving at a somewhat leisurely pace; again, usually you have 20 minutes to respond) the storm was on top of us.  At that point I started frantically gathering up pets trying to get them into their carriers for the move to the basement, but I was woefully ill prepared–at some point the cat box moved to the basement, leaving it unavailable for its assigned task.  I stuffed a cat in a shoulder bag, ready to head to the basement, but by the time all this activity finished, and I was ready to get to safety, the storm had passed.  If the tornado had stayed on the ground for awhile, its quite possible it would have hit while I was still trying to coax the cat out from under the bed.

Putting aside the obvious advice (as many have since mentioned: human safety first, then animals, if one has to choose), this experience made me reflect on the attributes that contributed to my failure to respond, and how they relate to using simulations in the classroom.

First, I was simply unprepared.  I did not know that a severe thunderstorm was expected, and thus did not have the carrier ready to go in case a trip to the basement was necessary.  Lack of preparation and anticipation of the unexpected is a big reason why simulations sometimes fail.

Second, I was unable to quickly adapt to my circumstances. I did manage to convert a canvas bag into a cat carrier, but I was unable to get all the pets into the basement by myself.  Despite this, I continued to try to corral them, rather than recognizing that I should simply go. Moreover, even though it was clear from the tv that the storm was much closer than it seemed, I did not immediately go to the basement, but instead took the time to grab shoes and other unnecessary things.  Just because in the past I had had 20 minutes to react did not mean I could act as such now.  Likewise, things come up in simulations that result in lost time, such as rules that need to be more fully explained to one group that others in the past may have understood more quickly.  You need to work within the confines of the time you have, and recognize that some aspects of the game or sim might need to be sacrificed to preserve the whole experience.

Finally, I learned that no matter what happens in my real life, I can somehow always find a way to relate it to my teaching. Never forget the value of life experiences as a teaching tool.



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