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Simulation units enliven political science classes

By : Nicole Borawski

Several faculty members in the Political Science Department use simulations to help students develop new understandings of topics ranging from state government to the Middle East peace process.

Jennifer Jensen, Jonathan Krasno and Patrick Regan have all used this learning technique. Jensen, who teaches a simulation in her state and local government class, sees it as an opportunity for active learning.

Her students develop policy placements in order to better understand the legislative process. “One example is I had students study community pluralism and investigate whether different businesses in downtown Binghamton were equally represented,” she said. “Students ended up finding that there was a divide between businesses in how much political voice they thought they had.”

Jensen, a visiting assistant professor, began participating in simulations in graduate school and made it a part of her curriculum at the University beginning two years ago.

Krasno, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies, has used simulations for the last three years. In his public opinion and campaigns and elections courses, students act as members of the House, lobbyists, political action committee directors, presidential advisers and journalists.

“The objective is to figure out policy goals, and it puts students in a situation where they have to think,” Krasno said. “It simulates reality and helps students understand what goes on in Congress.”

Regan’s issues in world politics course involves a semester-long simulation. It focuses on international conflict management and resolution, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli situation.

“Their goal is to do, as students, what politicians cannot,” said Regan, professor of political science. “They become foreign ministers and prime ministers, and negotiate with each other as they go through the peace process.”

Regan said students have laid the groundwork to negotiate conflicts, but have never come up with a solution for Middle East peace. “After 15 weeks, students learn about the difficulty in solving these conflicts,” he said.

All three professors have found their students take a strong interest in the roles they play. Regan and Krasno ask students to write biographies of the people they are playing because it is critical for students to know their character and believe in the policies their character advocates.

“Sometimes the acting can be emotional, especially for Jewish students playing Palestinian terrorists,” Regan said. “But you can’t get around participating, and the majority of students enjoy it because resolving conflicts is at the core of our lives. They walk away with a better understanding of how to deal with all kinds of issues.”

Jensen finds her students develop an interest in how the community works. “They may be intimidated by the class at first, but by the end, students understand the political process and become actively interested in what they find,” she said. “It’s better than just reading about the issue in a book.”

Florina Getman, a student of Jensen’s, participated in a New York State legislative simulation, in which Getman’s role was to be a lobbyist for the New York State Association of Counties.

“I benefited very much from this experience because it sparked my interest in lobbying and public policy,” she said.

Regan finds some students are more aggressive and already have a basic knowledge about certain conflicts. “They fight to be the Israeli prime minister, but the most outgoing student is not necessarily the most logical choice because he or she is not always able to foster cooperation,” he said.

Jensen, Krasno and Regan said they receive similar student feedback at the end of the semester. Simulations can be overwhelming for passive learners, but many students acquire skills that are beneficial in other parts of their lives.

“Students learn about their strengths, leadership and what it takes to manage people,” Jensen said.

Students attain replicable skills, including learning to how ask questions, presenting information, figuring out how to obtain answers and analyzing situations, she added.

Krasno said simulations offer students to have fun and make something abstract into a personal matter.

“Experiential education is more common in other fields, such as education and engineering,” Regan said, “so it is a great opportunity to do this in social science.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08