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.

The simulation includes periodic feedback pages between groups of issues that give users a sense of progress in the broader scope of negotiations.  The final page presents the results of the negotiation.  If the negotiations were successful, the user sees a picture of a handshake and a description of the trade agreement signing ceremony. If the negotiations were unsuccessful, the user is informed that he or she was fired as a trade representative.

I allowed students to play the simulation multiple times during a five-day period. Quantitative and qualitative results from surveys indicated that students were highly satisfied with the simulation as a learning tool. Responses to open-ended questions showed that students engaged with the simulation at both an intellectual and an emotional level:

“I felt that the simulation was informative and fun. I actually cared about whether I was going to get fired or not!”

“I completely embraced the trade simulation and still continue to work at it to successfully complete the negotiations . . . it showed that trade negotiations are a very complex and problematic matter.  Even with an ally to the U.S. like Japan, negotiations were difficult. It showed me that balance is integral to negotiations; not giving up too much, but giving up enough to satisfy your trading partner.”

“I thought the simulation was a lot of fun, although for me, it was extremely difficult.  I tried the simulation tons of times and could not reach enough agreements.  It was fun to pretend you were actually negotiating with Japan, although it was frustrating at times.”

 “It was one of those things I would have worked on until I got it right if I had enough time.  Very addicting to play with, like a good Flash game on the internet.”

People can download the simulation’s Excel file here. For additional information, please refer to Steven F. Jackson, “Political Simulations Using Excel,” Journal of Political Science Education 9, 2 (2013): 209-221, or contact him at the email address listed above.