Teaching Science by Reacting to the Past (#STEM11)

Last month I attended the AAC&U / Project Kaleidoscope conference “Engaged STEM Learning: From Promising to Pervasive Practices.” You probably know what STEM stands for, but just in case: STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.  These four disciplinary areas are often grouped together in educational initiatives given their similarities and complementary natures.  In spite of what Natalie Angier might think about the acronym, it has no special meaning. It’s just a shorthand for a particular cluster of academic disciplines.

The #STEM11 conference (as it was known on Twitter) was really fantastic. Most participants were STEM faculty from a range of disciplines (although mathematics seemed to be underrepresented) with some administrators and faculty developers in the mix, too. Participants came from a range of institutions all over the United States. It was clear to me that these folks were passionate about enhancing the quality and effectiveness of undergraduate STEM education. The sessions and keynotes were generally very informative and inspiring, and the attendees were active participants throughout the conference. There was even a small, but interesting Twitter backchannel during the conference.

My favorite session of the conference was “Reacting to the Past: The Pluto Debate” facilitated by Tony Crider and Megan Squire of Elon University. I interviewed Tony for my book on teaching with clickers years ago, and this conference gave me the chance to meet him in person for the first time. I arrived at the session a bit early so I could introduce myself to Tony, but instead of engaging me in a bit of chit chat, Tony recruited me to play Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. See, Tony and Megan’s session was designed to introduce participants to the Reacting to the Past approach to educational role-playing activities. And instead of just telling us about this approach to teaching, in Tony’s case, astronomy, Tony and Megan had us participate in one such activity, “The Pluto Debate.”

Once everyone in the session was given a role to play and Tony had introduced the activity, we had about ten minutes to prepare to role-play the meeting of astronomers that Tyson convened in 1999 at the Hayden Planetarium to discuss the possibility of “demoting” Pluto from its planet status. This meeting actually occurred back in 1999, and we played real astronomers, each with his or her own view on whether Pluto should be a planet. As one of the two people playing Tyson, I opened up and moderated the discussion. Everyone else weighed in on the debate as suggested on the “rolesheets” that Tony distributed at the start of the session. Each rolesheet provided an overview of the debate, as well as information on the astronomer to be role-played. Some argued for Pluto’s status as a planet, some against, and some were undecided. At the end of the 30-minute debate, I asked for a show of hands: “Should Pluto be kept in the planet club?” As Neil deGrasse Tyson, I wanted Pluto out of the planet club. Unfortunately, I lost. The planeteers won the day.

Playing Neil deGrasse Tyson in this mock debate wasn’t easy. Not only did I have to facilitate the debate (as moderator), but I also had to follow the various arguments for and against Pluto’s status as a planet that were shared! As a trained mathematician who went through a “I want to be a planetary scientist!” phase back in high school, this was fun but challenging. But even within this this shortened 30-minute version of the debate, I got into it–I really wanted my side to win the show of hands at the end! (Had this been an actual astronomy class, the debate would have lasted a full class period.)

During the debate, I kept wondering how many of the #STEM11 conference participants in the room were astronomy, planetary science, or physics professors. Some of them handled themselves very, very well during the debate. I was sure there were several experts on Pluto in the mix. Nope, just a couple. Most of the participants who really shined in the debate were not specialists–they were biology profs, chemistry profs, and such. With just ten minutes to plan their arguments, they were able to hold their own and very effectively explore various aspects of the debate over Pluto’s status. Should we have a common definition for a planet? If so, what should that definition be? Should it include something about the object’s size? Its orbit? Its satellites? Its ability to clear the area of other large objects? And should that definition change in response to new information, like the discovery of hundreds (now thousands) of trans-Neptunian objects? (I took particular delight in saying the phrase “trans-Neptunian objects” as many times as I could during the debate.)

After the mock debate, Tony and Megan gave us a chance to debrief the experience. Then they talked about how the Reacting to the Past method plays out in their classes. As you might expect (particularly if you’ve been thinking about social pedagogies, as I have lately), students find this activity incredibly motivating. Tony and Megan’s “games” typically run across two or three class sessions. Usually a couple of students will go above and beyond in their preparation for the first session, then really stand out during the in-class debate. This motivates many of the other students to take the between-session homework very seriously, coming very well prepared for subsequent debates.

Moreover, as Tony said, they really want to win! By the final debate in the sequence, which usually ends with a vote or decision of some sort, students are invested in their side coming out victorious. It helps that every student is given a “secret objective” to accomplish during the debates. (My secret objective, as Neil deGrasse Tyson, was to have the anti-planet side win the straw poll at the end of our debate.) All this sets the stage for highly engaged students during these activities.

Tony and Megan cautioned that these motivational effects depend on students feeling that they have a real chance of winning throughout the debates. That means that, sometimes, instructors need to intervene to keep the “sides” on par. Megan said she doesn’t mind letting a particularly excellent student debater know that his character died of polio (or something appropriate to the context) and that he or she now must play a character on the other side of the debate. She’s even done this during class by passing notes to the student in question!

Speaking of passing notes, Tony and Megan said it’s difficult, but critical, that instructors keep silent during the debate itself. If the students see the instructor intervening, they revert to “regular” classroom mode, deferring to the instructor. Instead, the instructor’s job during the debate is to sit quietly, observe, take notes, and occasionally pass notes to individual students. The instructor’s work is mainly in the preparation, laying out the terms of the debate and coaching students on the roles they will be playing. Casting certain students for certain roles is important, too. Instructors also play an active role between sessions, sending encouraging notes to students who defended their sides well or pointing struggling students towards resources that might help them in the next session. As I tweeted during the session, all this involves some unusual roles for an instructor: game master, casting director, and cheater!

Reacting to the Past began as a project by Barnard College history professor Mark Carnes. Carnes designed very elaborate role-playing activities that stretched over weeks of a course, all intended to help students better understand history and historical thinking. See Carnes’ recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire,” for examples and his take on why the method works so well. Reacting to the Past has spread to 40 other colleges and universities, and faculty using this approach have designed 9 published “games” and have more than 20 more in development. See the Reacting to the Past website for details.

At some point in the past, Tony Crider learned about this approach and saw potential for it to work in the sciences, too. He and some colleagues were given an NSF grant to develop Reacting to the Past modules for science courses. Tony said that in the sciences, there’s often no time for a month-long Reacting to the Past game. Shorter ones are needed, particularly for introductory survey courses where they would be most used. So the games that Tony and his colleagues have been designed are short ones, intended for maybe a week of a class. They’ve been testing out their games at Elon and elsewhere and plan to publish them as the history-focused RTTP games have been published.

If you’re interested in implementing the Reacting to the Past method in your course, I encourage you to consider attending one of the RTTP conferences held around the country, particularly the annual institute this June. You’ll get the chance to participate in a few RTTP games and learn more about using them in your teaching. And if you’re a STEM educator, contact the RTTP folks about special NSF funding for attending these conferences.

I have a feeling I’m just scratching the surface with the Reacting to the Past method, but this blog post is already over 1500 words. Given my ongoing research into social pedagogies and my interest in “gamifying” my cryptography course, I hope to return to this topic very soon!



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