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Political Science Simulations Bring History Books to Life

Political Science Simulations Bring History Books to Life

Associate Professor of Political Science Chris Moore uses classroom simulations to bring students face to face with some of history’s most controversial questions.

Federal delegations from Australia and Japan file into the Bethel University Olson Boardroom on a Wednesday afternoon, each side hoping to best the other in an argument before the International Court of Justice. Some sport suits and others don sweatpants, but all of them wear focused expressions as one Japanese delegate delivers a forceful defense of whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.

Then Associate Professor of Political Science Chris Moore taps a small gavel against the boardroom’s polished table and his students break character, relaxing into their cushioned seats. They’re in the middle of a simulation for their international relations class, a hallmark of Moore’s hands-on teaching style.

“Simulations makes things real in a way textbooks can’t,” Moore says. “Whether we’re talking about the Russian invasion of Crimea or a violation of human rights, the experiential component creates stakes.”

The opposing delegations—who have been assigned roles at random—scatter to prepare counterarguments as Moore orbits the room, twirling his gavel and chatting with student justices until the simulated court reconvenes. He’ll do it all over again in a few days with a different group of students and a different court case—this time a 1999 military dispute between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Moore’s teaching assistant, international relations major Bekah Olson ’17, says the simulations give political science majors real-world experience in an environment that “welcomes questions and clarifications.” Olson has participated in four class simulations herself, exploring issues ranging from the Syrian refugee crisis to the nuclear threat in North Korea. She’s also a member of Bethel University Model United Nations, a club that has won multiple awards for its performance in simulations at international conferences.

“These simulations are extremely impactful to student learning,” Olson says. “They give students great experience for future jobs. Most simulations involve students expressing their own opinions, speaking publicly, and working with others of similar and differing opinions.” 

But it’s not just aspiring politicians who benefit from the practical experience. Because the class fulfills a general education requirement, Moore’s students are often pursuing degrees that have little to do with political science. After the class ends, he says, some students thank him for helping them sort out the jargon and complex issues that pepper evening news broadcasts.

“That’s my benchmark,” Moore says. “If I have a nurse or an accountant who now understands the political world a little bit better, that’s how I know I’m doing my job well.”

For senior applied physics major Chris Auer—who played the role of a Japanese diplomat—experiential exercises make for more engaging class days. “Simulations not only allow you to gain knowledge on a given subject, but they also allow you to gain empathy by putting yourself in someone else's shoes and experiencing the feelings they have felt,” Auer says.

Moore has worked simulations into his classroom since he started teaching at Bethel in 2008, recreating everything from historical events to fictional conflicts in Game of Thrones. Over the years, he has fine-tuned his ability to engage and motivate students by singling out issues that are both interesting and relatable. One of his early simulations focused on a maritime border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia, and while it was “really important for international trade,” it was also “super technical and very boring,” Moore says.

He sees some of the best participation—and the highest tension—in simulations of domestic governing bodies, like the United States Security Council or the presidential administration. When students hold real-world stakes in a simulated issue, Moore says, they often benefit from stepping into the shoes of someone across the partisan divide.

“Often times, people who follow politics closely just look at outcomes,” Moore says. “We look at what Barack Obama or Donald Trump is doing, and we don’t like it. And it’s easy just to conclude that they’re either stupid or evil, but this sort of firsthand experience helps students understand why someone in that position, who had those voters and that agenda, would make a decision in that way.” 

For Auer, it was difficult to prevent his own beliefs from shaping the direction and quality of his argument—he is, in fact, opposed to Japanese whaling practices—but he appreciated the challenge of considering perspectives different from his own, a skill he knows will serve him well outside the classroom.

“I’m able to articulate my ideas to others, listen to and value other people's opinions, and understand how my cultural and personal biases affect the decisions I make,” Auer says. “[Those skills] are important for everyone, no matter which field you’re in.”

Learn more about political science at Bethel.