Types of Role-Playing Exercises

Initial Publication Date: December 21, 2006

Role-playing can be thought of as unstructured drama (Dallman-Jones et al., 1994). In these exercises, a student looks at the topic from the perspective of a character, who will affect and be affected by the topic. The instructor provides the setting and the characters, but the students have to decide their characters' lines and directions. Generally, the students will need to do some research to make informed decisions from their characters' perspectives. This research opportunity can easily become an inquiry element.

The character might be a miner trying to figure out how to stake a claim and to make his or her fortune off of it or an engineer who wants to build a space probe. Alternatively, the character could be an organism that is part of a food web and the student's job is to work out his or her relationships to the other members of the food web (role-played by classmates).

Role-playing exercises teach skills that are often assumed to be learned outside of the classroom (and sometimes aren't), and how to use those skills to complement scientific knowledge. These exercises require the students to use imagination, background knowledge appropriate to the character being role-played, and communications skills.

Individual Role-Playing Exercises:

The students research and write about or present the issue being studied in a format appropriate to the character they've been assigned: a letter to the editor, or a report to the board of a corporation. The challenge for these exercises is for the student to "get into character", to accept and work in the role that they've been assigned, especially if their character is very different from them.

For example, students could have a general lecture on groundwater depletion and recharge and then research and write a short paper from the perspective of a modern California farmer about groundwater and problems associated with it.

Interactive Role-Playing Exercises:

These are group projects that range from simple brainstorming exercises or scripted demonstrations to in-character debates or problem-solving exercises dealing with environmental or geoscience topics. These lessons may include individual assignments to prepare the students for their roles and for the project as a whole. It is easier for students to get into character and stay there with help from their classmates, but keeping the debate friendly and productive can be challenging.

One of the most common scenarios, and one that will be relevant to many students' lives is to give them the roles of stakeholders in a zoning decision that will be resolved at a town meeting. For example, some students would be developers, others landowners, scientists, or environmental advocates.

An interesting variant on this scenario is to have the students role-play stakeholders in a judicial decision in a hearing that follows some kind of disaster or discovery, such as a flood or a new gold mine.