Mekong Dam Simulation, Part 2

Today we have a second guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

In our last post, we described our Mekong River crisis simulation. The assessments that we use for this simulation are designed to reward student preparation and engagement (a detailed breakdown is in this appendix).

Students are initially provided with detailed position descriptions for employment in the organisations to which they’ve been assigned. They are asked to prepare for a mock job interview for that position, which requires them to conduct research and think about their role in the simulation. We have offered this scenario in an applied capstone class, so have required students to identify their own readings and research to be able to fulfil their roles.

Once the simulation begins, students write a weekly strategy memo for the lead member of their organization based on independent research they’ve conducted, an opportunity for them to consider the practical, actionable implications of scholarly work in the social sciences. Students also must also document their interaction with other organisations and the media during the simulation in a reflective journal.

The head of each organization in turn relies on his or her team members to regularly provide advice about the best course of action in the unfolding crisis. If a group suggests a questionable course of action, the instructor uses follow-up questions to prompt students to consider possible negative consequences, e.g. how would investors view a decision to cancel the project?

At the end of the course, students analyze their experience of the simulation in a writing assignment.

The simulation is designed to make it difficult for students to upset the status quo. Local and international NGOs usually must settle for limited gains based on a government’s willingness to placate its critics. While this sometimes leads to frustration and disillusionment for students, it allows them to gain a better understanding of the power disparity between governmental and nongovernmental actors. While students sometimes initially attempt to resolve the crisis by reaching a consensus among all parties involved, they quickly realize that this is impossible due to conflicting interests. While students are allowed to make risky decisions if they are well considered and not purposely disruptive, successfully negotiated political and policy changes in the simulation have always been limited and incremental. 

In past iterations of the simulation, the incumbent Thai leadership has usually been able to retain control of the government and dominate issue framing, in some cases solidifying its position in the process. Thai opposition groups have had to navigate between outright rejection of government policies and a more conciliatory and constructive criticism. Students have learned that political change is difficult to accomplish without a broad anti-government bloc that includes civil society organisations.

Changes at the international level have also been limited, accurately reflecting the shortcomings of the Lower Mekong  governance regime and ASEAN’s commitment to the principle of non-interference. Students’ attempts to amend the 1995 Mekong Agreement have been hindered by states’ competing foreign policy objectives and the strict application of sovereignty. At most, parties have agreed on a controlled and gradual extension of the Mekong River Commission’s supervisory apparatus.

We have identified a few ways in which the simulation can be further improved. Students’ concerns about free riding within teams, while partially mitigated through the use of a team member evaluation tool (e.g. CATME or Feedback Fruits, we used one developed for this class by Joel), have continued. A possible solution could be a “divorce option,” where students would be allowed to “fire” a free riding member. We have also observed that students’ insufficient background knowledge can lead to unrealistic behaviour in the simulation. This could be mitigated by an increased redundancy within groups (multiple students being given the same or similar role) and an added criterion of academic performance in determining group allocation (Joel’s tool for the allocation of students into groups for class assignments has also been used to allocate students into roles for this class). 

Live From COP 27

As usual, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

I’m attending the COP 27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh as an observer, courtesy of my university. For the general vibe, read this cheeky article (plus a follow-up!) from The Guardian. In its design and operation, the event models some major international relations and comparative politics concepts.

The Blue Zone, the main conference site, is sprawling and chaotic, yet has only one entrance and one exit where attendees badges are scanned. You’re either in or out. The Blue Zone is dominated by meeting rooms and exhibition spaces for state actors and a few U.N. organizations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, petroleum exporting rentier states, have the largest and most glitzy exhibits. Egypt, military dictatorship and conference host, ranks third in this respect. The U.S. pavilion is good-sized and neatly organized, but extremely loud, as is typical for Americans. Canada? Friendly and free coffee for passersby. The pavilions of African states are quite welcoming, despite their organizers’ histories of exploitation by foreign powers.

Potemkin coffee kiosk

Power hierarchy is apparent in other ways. One Blue Zone area is the preserve of high-ranking officials who meet behind closed doors after arriving in limousines. Occasionally dignitaries stroll through the mass chaos elsewhere in the Blue Zone, flanked by plainclothes protective teams. My compliments to the bodyguard who expertly guided me into a non-threatening position by gently touching my upper arm with only three fingers.

The Green Zone is a smaller space for Egypt’s government ministries and universities, along with international civil society groups, to showcase their environmental sustainability efforts. It is located directly across a road from the Blue Zone, ostensibly allowing attendees to conveniently pass back and forth. But the Blue Zone’s gate that faces this road is closed for the duration of COP 27 because of “security,” and the promised shuttle bus running between the Blue and Green Zones did not materialize until a few days after the conference had started. The conference venue includes a third building, dedicated to public-private partnerships, that also requires a shuttle or taxi to access because of surrounding walls, despite being only a short distance away as the crow flies. My prior international travel experience in authoritarian states leads me to believe that these impediments to movement and communication are a feature, not a bug.

My final comment, more directly pertinent to the subject of this blog: so far, COP 27 has resembled the typical academic conference at which information is dumped onto a passive audience via speeches and panel presentations. I have not yet encountered any Blue Zone events designed with active learning in mind. This is probably not the most effective strategy for teaching about an existential threat.

Mekong Dam Simulation

Today we have a guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

We developed a six weeks long simulation with three contact hours per week about international competition over freshwater resources of the lower Mekong River. The simulation, which we call the Riparian Dam Crisis, is designed to provide students with the opportunity to build collaboration, communication, and negotiation skills while learning about Southeast Asia. Students are introduced to select theories before the start of the simulation and incentivised to conduct independent research and source other relevant materials to inform actions of their groups throughout. 

The simulation involves a Thai-funded hydroelectric dam project in Laos. Most of the dam’s electricity will be purchased by Thailand. Shortly before the dam goes into operation, a drought reduces downstream water to its lowest level in living memory. This scenario, which resembles the real-life Xayaburi dam a few years ago, reflects competing economic and environmental demands, weak regional regimes for dispute resolution, domestic political considerations, and transnational advocacy networks. Students assume the roles of various stakeholders that must try to achieve specific objectives in an evolving situation, such as the Thai, Lao, and Cambodian ministries of foreign affairs, rural NGOs, the regional Mekong River Commission, Thai political parties, and journalists. For example, the dam has been constructed wholly within Laos’s borders, which paradoxically gives the smallest country the largest say in the simulation’s outcome. Cambodia is the most negatively affected by upstream dams in Laos, but it has limited influence over Laos and Thailand because it is not a participant in the project. Meanwhile Thailand is very susceptible to domestic pressure from interests that either support or oppose the dam.

During the simulation, student journalists representing two Thai media outlets conduct interviews and create stories targeting different audiences. The simulation’s other stakeholders need to engage strategically with reporters to have their actions framed in a positive manner. 

Thus, there is one constellation of groups that broadly favours pushing forward with the dam, another one that generally wants to halt the dam, and a third whose position is flexible. After an initial feeling-out period, students identify aligned groups and develop strategies to achieve their objectives. Each time we have run this simulation, students have focused on their efforts on preserving or creating a sympathetic ruling coalition in Thailand after they had exhausted other diplomatic avenues. Students have been quite creative in creating novel strategies to achieve group objectives, such as staging mock mass protest campaigns, lobbying global powers, and bringing down Thailand’s ruling coalition with a vote of no confidence.

In a future post, we will describe how we assess student learning from the simulation and how we adapted it over time in response to student experience.

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.

Looking Back At Another Simulation

As promised in my last post, a brief review of another self-designed Excel-based simulation that I used this past Spring semester:

The purpose of this simulation was to teach students about freshwater resource use in Asia. I created three preparatory assignments on water scarcity in the region. The twenty-one students in the class were divided into teams that represented countries dependent on rivers that originate in the Himalayan watershed: Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Vietnam. Each team could build dams on the rivers that transited its country’s territory. Dams:

  • Enabled a country to expand the area of irrigated farmland and produce more food.
  • Generated more hydroelectricity, which in turn increased industrial production, per capita income, and, because of urbanization, municipal demand for water.
  • Reduced the amount of water available to downstream countries.

Countries purchased dams with surplus food, which could also be donated to other countries. Because of population growth, each country’s food needs increased annually, and rainfall decreased, reflective of climate change. These processed served as an incentive for countries to build dams. If a country suffered a food deficit in any given year, refugees flowed into neighboring countries, increasing those countries’ food needs — an incentive for some countries to negotiate on dam construction.

Ultimately, however, the demand for water eventually exceeded its supply for several countries — an outcome I had deliberately built into the simulation.

As happened with Gerkhania in my comparative politics course, the need to regularly update a complex Excel spreadsheet created interruptions. And, as with the other class, I made a few errors in the process, which slowed things down even further. But although the design of the spreadsheet needs some improvement, I was generally pleased with how it worked.

I asked students to complete anonymous survey about the simulation after it had ended. Seven of the twenty-one students in the class responded. Six of the seven said they thought that the simulation accurately depicted water resource issues in Asia, and five felt that the simulation improved their understanding of these issues. The seventh student thought that the simulation was a confusing, unproductive exercise.

Several commented that communication within and between teams was problematic because of 1) the constraints of the Webex meeting platform, and 2) lack of participation by teammates. This feedback leads me to wonder if I should include a collaborative team assignment before the simulation begins, perhaps one in which teammates’ contributions derive from more formalized roles (e.g., agricultural minister, foreign minister, etc.). And I do realize that Webex’s chat box is not an ideal tool for conversation, so I need to find some other means by which students can communicate with each other in real time outside of the classroom.

But here is the big change I’m considering: for the last several years, based on Michelle Allendorfer’s reasoning, I have scheduled these simulations for the last week of classes. I’m now wondering if I should move them to the beginning of the semester, in an attempt to quickly engage students with course content before they get tired and distracted. This could become important if Fall semester gets disrupted halfway through by Covid-19 like Spring semester did.

More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 3

The final exam for this course last year asked each student to write an economic rationale in support of one of two policy options, using information from course readings as evidence. Generally students students did not do well on the exam, mainly because they did not discuss applicable concepts like moral hazard and discounting the future. These concepts were found in several course readings and discussed in class. While I didn’t explicitly mention these concepts in the exam prompt, the benefits of including them in the rationale should have been obvious given course content.

Now I’m thinking of a question like this for the final exam:

What has a greater influence on economic development in Egypt: law (institutions) or geography (luck)? Why?

In your answer, reference the items below and relevant course readings listed in the syllabus:

The downside here is that I’m giving up an authentic writing exercise in favor of (I assume) even more transparent alignment with course objectives.

More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 2

My original design for this course included a design thinking component organized in two stages. In the first stage, teams applied SCAMPER to California Water Crisis, a freeware board game. Although the subject of water scarcity was quite relevant to the course, the game’s mechanics were not the most engaging. This should have made it easy for students to think of significant SCAMPER-based improvements, but their recommended changes were relatively superficial. The graded writing assignment tied to this activity also left much to be desired.

In the second stage, students were asked to apply SCAMPER to an existing game other than California Water Crisis. Two problems popped up here. First, teams chose very simple games to modify — think Chutes and Ladders (and without even any awareness of its Indian origins or its connection to British imperialism). Second, although I specifically directed them to place the new game in a specific context, like a city, this didn’t happen.

This time around, I’ll be having students play Stop Disasters and Wingspan. Teams will have to apply SCAMPER to one of these two games. Although they both connect well to the course’s subject, neither game is ideal. Stop Disasters is problematic because it is Flash-based. Wingspan requires, where I work, a significant departmental budget outlay of $100 per game, and I have to purchase five of them. Given the dimensions of Wingspan’s box, transporting all five at once could be a problem. The campus building in which I work is not ADA-compliant (my office, perhaps appropriately, is at the top of what originally was the servants’ stairwell).

Instead of selecting something different for the second design round, teams will stick with whichever of the two games they chose for the first round. While students will be free to choose any subject related to the course for the new game they are designing, it will have to be set in the city in which the university is located. I hope to locate some online data visualizations — maps of flood zones, public transportation routes, property tax assessments, etc. — to help students with this.

After the initial SCAMPER-based redesign, each team will play another team’s game. In an individual writing assignment, students will evaluate the games they played according to the game design principles referenced in the same assignment from last year. I will provide each team with the feedback it receives from the other students.

For the next phase, teams will, I hope, use SCAMPER as a means of applying feedback to improve their game designs. Then there will be another round of play testing, with another written evaluation. I might make this second evaluation a mechanism by which teams earn points on the quality of their games, as assessed by other students. That could heighten students’ investment in the design process. I will probably also need to include a means for students to evaluate the work of their teammates on this project over the semester — something I do regularly in my other courses.

More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 1

The coming fall semester marks the second iteration of my “new” course on economic development and environmental politics. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I am making more changes. The complete original series of posts on how I built the course is here.

I am reducing my learning objectives slightly by eliminating an assignment on market externalities. I might return to the topic in the future, but last year I was not able to do it justice. Given the overall architecture of the course, it fell into the category of “what students don’t absolutely need.” I can keep it in my back pocket as something I can always lecture about at an appropriate time.

I am keeping the meta-prompts for assignments because, in my opinion, they serve as cues to students about the learning objectives. I don’t have any direct evidence that the meta-prompts actually register in students’ minds, but they might help.

As previously discussed, in-class quizzes did not work well. Students performed poorly on them, they consumed an excessive amount of classroom time, and they were a pain for me to grade. This time the quizzes will be timed at ten minutes, reside on our Canvas LMS, and consist of machine-graded multiple choice questions. I’ll have immediate feedback on students’ understanding and will be able to revisit subjects as needed. Each quiz is scheduled for the class after the corresponding learning objective has concluded.

In my next post, I’ll discuss changes to the design thinking aspect of the course.

Changing a Course on Development, Part 8

I want my final exam for this course to be its pièce de résistance — a vehicle for students to demonstrate how well they can apply their knowledge about the relationships between economics and the environment. I also want the application of knowledge to happen in an authentic, real-world context, where writing has a clearly-defined role, audience, purpose, and format. So here is the exam:

A Plan for Louisiana’s Future

Role

You are the Director of the Office of Planning and Budget for the State of Louisiana.

Audience

The governor of Louisiana

Purpose

Recommend to the governor whether Louisiana should either:

  1. Raise taxes to build the southern part of the state to a 10,000 year flood standard, or
  2. Stop all public infrastructure spending in areas unprotected by existing levees.

These are your only policy options. Write a 2-3 page rationale for choosing one of them. Discuss why your choice is economically best for the state. For evidence in support of your rationale, refer to relevant course readings and Continue reading “Changing a Course on Development, Part 8”

Changing a Course on Development, Part 7

I’ve been a fan of the quality of failure essay since Amanda introduced me to it several years ago, and I’ve tweaked it several times with varying degrees of success. In an attempt to avoid a mistake I made with it last semester, I have altered the assignment yet again by shortening the instructions considerably:

Read:

In a 2-3 page essay, analyze how you learned in this course. What actions helped or hurt your learning? Which components of the course most enabled you to better understand ideas or apply them in new ways?

Note that I have moved significantly away from the assignment’s original theme of failure. I am doing this for two reasons. First, in other courses this assignment has produced a lot of commentary from students about what I will label the superficial aspects of failure — as in “at the beginning of the semester I promised myself that I would get an A++ on every assignment but I failed at this because I didn’t manage my time well.” Second, I am curious to find out whether students regard the SCAMPER-based game design exercises as worthwhile, but I’m not going to influence their thoughts by explicitly asking about it.

Links to the full series of posts on redesigning this course: