Educational games can successfully supplement traditional teaching methods on sustainability topics

Parrondo, M. ., Rayon-Viña, F. ., Borrell, Y. J., & Miralles, L. . (2021). Sustainable Sea: A board game for engaging students in sustainable fisheries management. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 20, 406-421.

Around the world, natural fish populations are suffering due to overfishing and climate change impacts. To address such complex issues, educational games have been implemented and have been met with much success in environmental education. Not only do games help students retain information about the topic, but also provide an opportunity to think critically about possible solutions and impacts of solutions. In this study, the researchers reviewed the game called Sustainable Sea, which was designed to expose students to the challenges marine fisheries and fishers face, and ask players to come up with sustainable solutions to manage these fisheries concerning the needs of the human population (i.e., food and jobs). In particular, the researchers wanted to understand impacts of the game on student knowledge regarding the game objectives and player satisfaction at three different levels of education.

Sustainable Sea is a square board game where the first player or team to earn 15 sustainable management points (SMPs) wins the game. It has three main sections of spaces that occupy the border of the board with one port space on the board, similar to the popular game Monopoly. In those sections, there are three types of creatures that live at different depths each with an assigned dollar value. There is one die with six-sides, and each player gets a game piece modeled after a boat which either represents an artisan or small-scale fisher (small number of fish caught in real life, or taking resources from a space per each visit in the game) or a commercial fisher (large number of fish caught in real life, or taking multiple resources from each space per visit in the game). There is also a poacher game piece in which each time a “1” is rolled on the die, the poacher boat is moved to any space on the board, preventing the catch of that resource in the space. There is also money in the game, valuing between 100 and 10,000 credits, and sustainable management points that players can earn when they demonstrate positive fisheries conservation tactics or lost when they demonstrate negative fisheries conservation tactics. Finally, action cards are drawn from the deck when a “6” is rolled on the die and the card instructs the player on what to do when they reach that space. The action cards include negative consequences such as engine failure costing the player their next turn and gaining zero sustainable management points, and positive consequences like environmental volunteering allowing the player to eliminate an oil spill card and earning two sustainable management points. Players can purchase more sustainable management points, and/or apply action cards to their opponents. During each pass through the port space (the only one on the board), players can purchase new boats, and increase their change of reaching the game-winning amount of sustainable management points with is 15. The players of the game are thus exposed to fisheries issues like: genetic variations, marine protected areas, biodiversity, population changes, sustainable fisheries management practices, fishing bans, overexploitation, and small-scale and commercial fishing operations. Each of which serve as a learning objective for the game.

The researchers deployed this game to three different educational levels: a high school class (aged 14- to 15-years-old), an undergraduate class (aged 20- to 23-years-old), and a graduate class (aged 23- to 27-years-old). The high school class included 18 students in the biology and education for citizenship course at the Isla de Deva High School. The undergraduate class had 11 students from the conservation genetics and breeding in biology bachelor degree program and the graduate class included 6 students in the aquaculture in marine biological resources master program, both from the University of Oviedo. Both the university and high school were located in the principality of Asturias, Spain, which is a region that relies heavily on small-scale fisheries. Each group was provided a pre- and post-game test to evaluate knowledge level of each learning objective in the game. In addition, the undergraduate course participants were given a satisfaction survey at the end of the academic year that included 7 questions with answers ranging from 0 (no important) to 10 (very important). All the pre- and post-test scores were analyzed.

The researchers found that all student groups had an increase in the number of correct answers between the pre- and post-game tests, particularly with regard to fishing bans and biodiversity. The group of undergraduate students displayed the greatest number of increased correct answers. Particularly, the game was most significant for the knowledge acquisition of the undergraduate group, which the researchers considered as the group that had the optimal range of knowledge level for the game to be impactful. For example, the high school students were believed to have a lack of specific education on marine fisheries and resources, whereas the graduate group was believed to have a more rounded understanding of these issues. The satisfaction survey results revealed that alternative teaching strategies, like games and simulations, are preferred over traditional methods like cumulative tests or graded activities. When asked if this game should be implemented in future undergraduate courses, 100% of the undergraduates recommended it. The researchers concluded this game is an example of a useful tool for teaching complex issues like fisheries management at multiple educational levels because of the experience it provided students. This experience highlighted the effectiveness of active learning, including hands-on problem-solving and decision-making and the feedback from consequences – like losing a turn or earning points – to help make more sustainable decisions.

There were limitations to this study. First, the small sample size was derived from classes that solely focused on biology. Second, this study took place in a region of Spain that is dependent on fisheries. Therefore, the students at each level, may have had a preconceived notion about fisheries and sustainable management or lack thereof. Thus, the results of this study are not generalizable.

The researchers in this study suggested that based on the results, games and other interactive simulations should be used in the classroom to supplement traditional methods of learning like tests and grading structures. These hands-on activities increased knowledge retention on complex subjects and engaged students on interactive levels otherwise not obtained by traditional learning methods. The interactive component can help students develop a deeper understanding of sustainability issues, consider other perspectives, and improve problem-solving through empathy and by building relationships. Games and simulations can be adapted for all learning levels and add to the student learning experience. Overall, the researchers recommended environmental education teachers find ways to incorporate games into learning for students because it can be an affordable and practical way to enhance student learning and engagement on complex sustainability topics like marine fisheries management.

The Bottom Line

<p>Educational games have been implemented and met with much success in environmental education to help students retain information about sustainability, and provide an opportunity to think critically about solutions. In this study, the researchers reviewed the game Sustainable Sea to understand the ways the game elicited practical marine fisheries solutions, and the impacts of the game at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate level in Spain. A pre-and post-test was administered to all three groups and a satisfaction survey was given to the undergraduate students. The results revealed there was an increase in knowledge for all students, and they unanimously recommended games as preferred teaching methods compared to graded assignments. Overall, the researchers recommended environmental education teachers should find ways to incorporate games into learning for students because it can be an affordable and practical way to enhance student learning and engagement on complex sustainability topics like marine fisheries management.</p>

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