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Using Games to Teach Environmental Science

The use of games in the classroom is nothing new and something that I’ve written about on many previous occasions. Most educators know that integrating games into the classroom is a sound teaching strategy for many reasons, among them…

· Games are a play-based form of learning that mimics natural, experiential methods.

· Games promote critical thinking, collaboration, build positive class culture, and promote problem-solving skills, all of which translate into other facets of the classroom.

· Games are a “low-stakes” form of learning. Students who might feel reluctant to participate in other types of learning activities such as discussions or group work are more likely to participate in games.

· Games allow students to experience situations and challenges from a unique perspective by “context-switching” or allowing them to role-play based on the game design.

· Games provide unifying experiences for later reflection. Teachers can use games as a way to introduce or illustrate concepts in class by asking students to reflect on the experience of playing.

However, the value of games as educational experiences and knowledge-builders is dependent on the design of the game. Games that have a “simple” cognitive demand are less valuable than those that require more planning, collaboration, or anticipation. For example, Kahoot, a widely known game-based learning tool is engaging, which is good, but is ultimately a “simple” game from a learning perspective as all it requires is the recall or remembering of facts (lowest level of Bloom’s) There is little that helps teachers assess understanding in “simple” games outside of "did they get it right?"

Games with “complex” value tend to require students to evaluate a situation or analyze a scenario and respond with appropriate moves or play of their own (top tier of Bloom’s)

To summarize before we move on;

· Simple – recall-based games or gamified review activities (e.g. Kahoot, Quiziz, PowerPoint Jeopardy)

· Complex – simulation or contextualized games (e.g. Understanding the problems of the Treaty of Versailles by role-playing the peach conference. Using mathematics to predict gains and losses in a stock market simulation, etc.)

It is these complex experiences that we want to focus on for environmental science as they provide fertile ground for helping students understand a multitude of concepts that are essential to the field. Environmental Science is complex by nature, requiring scientists to take into account multiple factors as they try and determine the outcome of a course or action or judge the cost/benefit of science-based recommendations. For example, an environmental scientist tasked with determining why the health of a wetland is suffering must look for environmental indicators, apply their knowledge of wetland ecosystems, propose a plan of action that takes into account multiple special interests, government laws, and budgets and then monitor and adjust the plan based on its success. If you ask ES professionals how they learned to juggle all of these factors they will probably say practical experience helped, so why not simulate that in your own classroom?

How do you find these “complex” gaming experiences that teach and assess a student’s knowledge and understanding of environmental concepts? The not-so-simple answer is design them yourself, which is what I did when I designed a game that helped students learn about the politics involved in public land policy for my Bears Ears Nat’l Monument project which you can download here.

However, getting started with game design is not easy and not intuitive for some educators, so the other option is getting creative and looking around for pre-made games that focus on the concepts you are trying to teach. Here is a short list you may want to consider for potential use;

Some great card games from Killer Snails LLC, an awesome game design company that I got to meet early on in their company history at SXSWed. Their Biome Builder game is especially relevant to the ES classroom

Students learn about the costs of development and restoration in this hands-on simulation created by the Everglades Foundation

Multiple games focused on issues around water access, water quality, and the tug of war involved in sustainable development.

Fun online games meant for younger learners that illustrate ES concepts like food chains, ecosystem stability, and decomposition.

A print-and-play game that helps students understand the California Water Crisis


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