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Cornell University

Use Simulation Activities to Make Problems Come Alive

Could playing a game improve learning in engineering? There’s good reason to think it could.

We know that many new engineering graduates initially struggle to apply their technical abilities to complex real-world problems. We also know from years of educational research that repetitive practice in solving well-defined problems isn’t very effective at developing skills that last beyond the date of the final exam. And finally, since engineering touches every part of modern life, we know that our students will encounter difficult ethical challenges in their professional work, but their coursework rarely prepares them for these dilemmas.

What can we do about these pedagogical challenges? One strategy that addresses all of these concerns is to engage students in dynamic scenarios that simulate the complexities of defining problems in the real world, including consideration of social and ethical impacts of technical decision-making.

Consider, for example, this detailed simulation activity developed by the Scientific Citizenship Initiative (SCi) at the Harvard Medical School. Students are presented with an evolving scenario in which they are new biomedical scientists or engineers working with CRISPR-based gene editing therapies. As the activity unfolds, they must make specific decisions about how to focus their research efforts, from whom to accept funding, and how to respond to public concerns about gene editing. These decisions are complex, requiring some understanding of both the technical material and how to apply ethical and civic values. This activity can inspire one or more class sessions of discussion.

Scenarios for the classroom needn’t be quite so detailed to be effective. For example, in a class on statics you might include additional ethical complexities in a word problem, which students would have to resolve as part of defining the technical problem. Perhaps there are several possible placements for a bridge over a river, but some configurations create environmental concerns, such as habitat loss, while others present social concerns, such as equity in community access to amenities. Only after making and justifying this ethical and political choice would students move to calculations necessary to design the bridge. As in real life, in this word problem defining the technical problem in the first place requires attending to social and ethical issues, making the whole exercise feel more real.

You could also use a game-based simulation to provoke in-class discussion of a topic with social impact that might otherwise be approached in a technical manner. For example, The McDonald’s Video Game, originally released by an Italian game studio in 2005, challenges players to run an effective supply chain and multinational business. An operations research course might consider a similar problem, but the game adds ethical commentary by exploring issues such as animal welfare, habitat destruction, and political corruption. Assigning students to play the game as part of a larger discussion of which values we choose to optimize may productively complicate the technical content.

To learn more about simulations and scenarios as a teaching method, consider attending the talk by Dr. Daniel Pomeroy, Co-Director of the Scientific Citizenship Initiative at the Harvard Medical School. On March 14 at 3:30 PM in Phillips 219, Dr. Pomeroy will introduce SCi, its mission to improve engagement between STEM practitioners and society, and some of SCi’s pedagogical methods. The talk is free and open to all. For interested faculty, graduate students, and postdocs, there will also be a lunch discussion with Dr. Pomeroy on March 15 at 12:00 noon—register with this form to join us.

This tip comes from the Bovay Program in the History and Ethics of Professional Engineering. For additional discussion and guidance on incorporating social and ethical issues in your teaching, or to organize a guest session, please contact us.