Observing Observation

Two weeks ago, students in my economic development and environmental politics course played my simulation on freshwater resource scarcity in Asia. If my memory is correct, it was the first time running the simulation in the physical classroom, and I was interesting in whether students behaved differently in the face-to-face environment compared to a prior iteration of the simulation that occurred online.

You can lead the students to knowledge . . .

The underlying mechanics of the simulation were unchanged: six teams, each representing a different country with one or more transnational rivers crossing its territory. Turn by turn, the population expands, more food must be produced, and water demand increases, yet countries are building dams upriver and rainfall declines because of climate change. Eventually a country has a famine and millions of refugees spill into its neighbors.

This time around I added a victory condition: members of the team with the greatest percentage growth in GDP per capita when the simulation ended earned five points (out of a thousand) toward their final grades. I put a copy of the simulation’s spreadsheet, which shows how actions taken by teams affect water availability, food production, hydroelectricity generation, and GDP, on the LMS and encouraged students to experiment with it before the simulation started.

Student did seem more engaged with the simulation in the classroom than they had online, though it was far easier for me to observe their interactions. The real surprise was how baffled students were about the cause and effect relationships built into the spreadsheet. Growth in GDP requires growth in hydroelectric capacity, which only comes from building dams. Yet teams were hesitant to build dams. By the end of the simulation, China, for example, had stockpiled enough of a reserve to have constructed over one hundred dams, yet it had built only a handful. The largest change in GDP among the six teams? Only 1.1 percent over a twelve year period.

Students clearly had not tried to figure out the spreadsheet before the simulation started, and none of them seemed to understand the relationship between economic growth, food, and water. Consequently, many of them flailed about helplessly as their country’s water supply steadily dwindled. When asked during the debriefing why they chose inaction instead of action, I got mostly blank looks. As I’ve noted before, many students seem to have little understanding of cause and effect; instead, in their worlds, stuff just happens. While I would prefer not adding multiple assignments to the course to force students to work with the simulation’s causal relationships before the simulation actually begins, it might be necessary.

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