Marshall Hayes and Prof. Eric Nelson use a new teaching technique called "Reacting to the Past" to teach students about events in science history.
London, summer 1854: A cholera outbreak near Broad Street has left more than 500 people dead in the past few days. You are a member of an emergency response committee, tasked with addressing the situation and preserving the health of the community. How do you proceed?
That’s the prompt that research associate Marshall Hayes, plant pathology and plant biology, and Prof. Eric Nelson, plant pathology and plant biology, use with their new teaching method, “Reacting to the Past,” in which students learn about historic scientific events by re-enacting them.
“Reacting to the Past” is a new approach to learning that Hayes brought to Cornell. It uses role-play to immerse students in the background of a scientific issue. The game helps students actively learn because they research their roles in advance and then act them out in student-run situations. They learn about the scientific topic by pretending to be key players in the historic event.
“Reacting to the Past,” or RTTP, was first developed in the late 1990’s by a small consortium of colleges and universities led by Mark C. Carnes at the University of Barnard College in New York. First designed as a tool to teach humanities students about historical events, RTTP has since grown in popularity and now features games that examine past problems through a scientific lens. Hayes has used money from a National Science Foundation grant to bring more role-play games into science classrooms.
“The ultimate goal is to create a classroom environment in which your students are not only active participants but are also leading the discussion and are heavily engaged in material assigned to them,” Hayes said. He noted that role-playing historical events is especially effective for teaching complex and controversial scientific concepts such as the evolution debate and the trial of Galileo. He is currently spearheading the use of role-playing on campus and has encouraged its implementation into courses across campus.
PLPA 2950: Biology of Infectious Diseases, taught by Nelson, with help from Hayes, involves students in a role-playing game called “London 1854: Cesspits, Cholera, and the Conflict over the Broad Street Pump.” Hayes and Nelson worked together to make the game as scientifically and historically authentic as possible by exposing the students to original raw data and first hand reports from that time.
Vishesh Kothary ’12, who took the class last year, said that, in the course, he and his classmates dressed up as characters from 19th century London, adopted Victorian accents and congregated in the crypt of Sage Chapel where they replayed public health discussions as they would have occurred in the past.
“The aim was to slip into character and re-create the dynamic considering the political, social, religious and scientific views in force at the time, and seek to understand how rational decisions were made despite lack of modern scientific knowledge,” he said.
As Prof. Nelson explained, “Games have rules. We are now in 1854. We do not know what germ theory is.”
At the time, it was not widely believed that diseases were caused by organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye. The common view of that time, miasma theory, said that disease was caused by bad air.
During this epidemic, scientists used observation, logic and deductive reasoning to discover that cholera was being transmitted from drinking water that was contaminated by a leaking cesspit. This discovery helped develop germ theory. The students in the class used similar techniques to arrive at the same result.
“The fundamental process about thinking critically about scenarios is what the people back in 1854 did, and they did it to the effect that basically established the field of epidemiology,” Hayes said.
Hayes and Nelson have thought of other games that could potentially be developed, to represent a broad spectrum of historical eras.
Hayes planned that cholera would be played as the first game in a three-part series of role-playing exercises in a microbiology class. The second scenario would be the 1903 Typhoid epidemic that affected Cornell, and the third scenario would be a modern day Haiti cholera outbreak. Hayes explained that there are different teaching objectives related to each.
In 1854, the causes of cholera were not understood. In 1903, the transmission dynamics of typhoid was not known. But as of 2011, germ theory, microbiology and molecular microbiology are in place and understood. Still, thousands of people are dying of cholera in Haiti.
“The kinds of questions we address in this lesson are what kind of data is necessary when you are studying an outbreak in order to decide cause and effect, and to decide about proper management strategies,” Hayes said.
With all the information we have access to today, the issue is not access to the facts; it is “how do we produce people that can have the confidence insights and foresights to be able to deal with really complex issues?” Hayes said. He and Nelson said the primary objective of the role-play technique is to have students develop critical thinking and analytical skills. The two also agree that students take a lot away from the class and have fun as well.
“Professor Nelson goes out of his way to make sure we learn many of the skills necessary to become good scientists and leave the class with critical thinking skills that will last for a lifetime, even when the information we learn in this class is long forgotten,” Kothary said. This is the second year the course will be offered at Cornell.
Each summer, faculty participate in a conference in which they play the developmental games and give feedback to improve them. Hayes said at least three other universities will be playing the cholera game as early as next spring.
“It has been as much fun researching and preparing for it as it is for the students. It is not only fun but, challenging. I can only envision the extent to which you can take something like this,” Hayes said. “I envision the course that would allow us to go to London and play the exact game and visit the spots and walk the path, immersing students not only in history but in ideas, cultures, and understanding what it really means to be involved in a really active thought process.”
In addition to his help utilizing “Reacting the Past” techniques in microbiology classes, Hayes has also helped incorporate this technique into environmental courses at Cornell. Deborah Sills ’11, a post-doctoral student in earth and atmospheric sciences, decided to try science role-playing with her students in her Freshman Writing Seminar, EAS 1420: Sustainable Earth, Energy and Environmental Systems, after hearing about the teaching technique from Hayes.
In the course, students reenacted the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference debate, in which world leaders met for ten days to develop a plan to tackle global climate change.
“I thought this might help students, and myself, gain insight on the challenges of coming to an international agreement on such a controversial issue,” Sills said.
She also noted that the role-playing technique served as a more effective method of educating students about the controversy surrounding climate change than lecture. This is because students were able to experience firsthand that different countries hold different views on sustainability standards. Sills also said that the reenactment game moves students away from passive learning and will help those who are used to writing purely scientific papers formulate arguments, write persuasively and learn to communicate complex ideas.
Hayes said he is very enthusiastic about the positive benefits of “Reacting to the Past” in science classrooms. He pointed out that, through the method, students are not only learning content, but are also thinking critically, developing confidence in their knowledge and challenging others.
Hayes added that, by using this technique in science classes, students can successfully learn the subject matter because they are often on the spot, which forces them to be adequately prepared. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the teaching method, however, is that it demonstrates firsthand the intersection of science and real life, and reinforces the importance of communication in such critical times throughout science history.