Millennium Village Simulator: Teaching Systems Theory

10 Feb

One of the things we require of all our students here at the Jepson School is a course entitled Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry, which is the first required sequence class for our newly-admitted sophomores. One part of that class is systems theory–in a nutshell, why complex systems (like the environment, societies, governments, education) have so many problems and why the “fixes” we implement always seem doomed to failure. Well, one of the examples that surfaces in most readings is the idea of Western intervention in African villages (which is rather racially problematic and a little paternalistic in some ways, but I’m not the one writing the books) and how it very often ends up causing problems instead of solving them.

This year, I decided to augment the readings by having the class attempt to manage a village using the Millennium Village Simulator (Columbia University). The students will take about 10 minutes at the end of several classes (essentially, whenever I have the time) to make choices about what will happen to the villagers (Kodjo and Fatou) to see if they can successfully manage it over the course of time.

Of course, they don’t know that yet (unless they’re reading this). They played for about 15-20 minutes the first time, and made several big and rash choices at the end of class to try to maximize the short-term income and health of Kodjo and Fatou with the understanding that class was about to end. This was, naturally, right after a discussion about how we tend to only look at problems from a short-term perspective–I didn’t tell them that we would continue the project (to be honest) because I hadn’t made that decision. However, upon returning to my office, it occurred to me that it would be a more valuable lesson in systems theory if I made them continue (the game saves its states), particularly after making the last-minute choices they did, to see whether or not they could adjust for what they’ve already done.

So we will–I want to try to put aside at least 10-15 minutes every week for the class to make more decisions, to see how long we can make it, and whether or not we’ll manage to keep Fatou and Kodjo alive until the end of the semester. Stay tuned!