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Participatory Simulations

Role-playing activities have traditionally been used in social studies classrooms, but have infrequently been used in science and mathematics classrooms. Our use of the term participatory simulations is intended to refer to such role-playing activities used primarily in science and mathematics classrooms to explore how complex dynamic systems evolve over time. For example, each class member could play the role of a predator or prey in an ecology and engage in a class swide discussion of the resultant global population dynamics. A wide ranging set of sample content areas for participatory simulations include the spread of a disease, the flow of traffic in a grid, the distribution of goods in an inventory system, the diffusion of molecules through a membrane, or the emergence of an algebraic function from a set of points.

Note that in using the term "simulation" we do not imply a necessary fidelity to "real world" phenomena. A simulation of the propagation of a disease through a population, for example, is seen to about how a real disease propagates in a population. The simulation is evaluated principally in terms of how much it is like or unlike the real disease. While this kind of simulation is important to our work, the kinds of participatory enactments we seek to implement also include activities where the system of interactions and the consequent emergent behavior derive their worth and cognitive value not in comparison to something else. To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, they may simply be "good to think" and thus stand on their own. Later in this document we will present an example where students move around as points in a Cartesian coordinate system. In this "Function Activity" the students embody the abstractions of points and explore the significance of moving according to simple local rules. The power of the activity does not come from how well it compares to some other (more "real") system. As a learning activity it stands on its own. The function activity is one example of where emergent activities have the potential to concretize (Wilensky, 1991) whole classes of mathematical and scientific abstractions in ways that are personally meaningful and empowering to learners. This is a more allusive and potentially metaphorical use of the term & "participatory simulation" than may be suggested by the name alone. For the purposes of our work, we will use this broader notion of participatory simulation activity (PSA) and the term emergent activity (EA) interchangeably (see Figure 1).

For us, a participatory simulation or emergent activity must draw attention to systems dynamics and systems learning. This attention to dynamic structure, evolving state, feedback, and the like is not so much a feature of the activity itself as it is in the focusing of one’s sense-making on the systems aspects the experience. Drawing attention to systems dynamics and systems learning describes the quality of our relationship to a participatory experience. Using this constraint on what we mean by a participatory simulation — that attention must be drawn to systems dynamics and systems thinking — we can now track a history of the development of participatory simulations.