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Role-Playing Game Teaches Students About Plastics

Conflicts In Chemistry: The Case of Plastics puts chemistry in a social context

by Celia Henry Arnaud
September 16, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 37



Credit: Conrad Erb
Credit: Conrad Erb
Credit: Conrad Erb

Jeremy Wolf (bottom, at podium) and his Chem II students from Palisades High School in Kintnersville, Pa., present their findings about plastics to audience members at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Credit: Conrad Erb (ALL)

It’s a Friday evening in late May. The students from Jeremy Wolf’s Chemistry II class are presenting a community event at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) about their experience in the role-playing game Conflicts in Chemistry: The Case of Plastics. The students took the game seriously, but they had some fun with it, too. Polly Ethylene, Cornelia Corniscool, Molly Kule—these are just a few of the evocative names the students from Palisades High School in Kintnersville, Pa., adopted for their characters.

The Case of Plastics is a role-playing game developed by CHF as the first module in its Conflicts in Chemistry education program. The goal of the program is to help students draw connections between what they learn in chemistry classes and what they experience in their own lives.

“We want to put chemistry in a social context,” says Deborah Cook, an education consultant who served as the project manager. Michael Mackintosh, the researcher for the program, adds that an important part of the concept was “focusing on issues that don’t have clearly defined right and wrong answers.”

Here is the game’s scenario: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to establish new regulations that require plastics manufacturers to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products. The agency is holding a public hearing about the proposed regulations. The students are assigned roles in one of six groups—health, industry, invention, sustainability, waste, and regulators—and they have to approach the problem from the perspective of their character. The groups have “victory objectives” of what they would like to see (or not see) in the final regulation.

The students receive background material on the history and science of plastics. Each student also gets material—available on CHF’s website—that is specific to his or her group and character. For example, the sustainability group includes recycling advocates, biodegradability experts, and bioplastics developers. The students use that information to develop testimony for the public hearing.

And those personas that Wolf’s students adopted? Polly Ethylene was a member of the health group, Cornelia Corniscool was a biofuels expert in the sustainability group, and Molly Kule was a lobbyist in the industry group.

The module is structured so that during play no group wins after the first debate. The groups—still in character—are reshuffled into three larger groups with representatives from five of the original groups. These new groups negotiate and propose compromise regulations. The regulator group then picks the winning proposal.

The game was written for as few as 20 and as many as 33 students. Roles beyond the 20 minimum are added in an order that maintains balance among the groups and points of view.

“It’s meant to be spread out,” Cook says. “If you really want to cram it into a week or two, you can. But ideally there’s time for the steps to develop—for the students to learn about the characters and roles they’re playing and then have time to think” about the issue. The game takes about 10 classroom periods.

Screen grab of the website for “Conflicts in Chemistry: The Case of Plastics.”
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation
The materials for Conflicts in Chemistry: The Case of Plastics are available on the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s website.

For the pilot project, teachers at three schools in the Philadelphia area used the module in their classes. Wolf played the game with his Chem II class, which had only 19 students. (He drafted an independent-study student for the 20th spot.) Sharon Cornwall, a teacher at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls, used the module with three sections of Chemistry I, with 22, 28, and 33 students. Matthew VanKouwenberg used the game with a chemistry class and a chemical engineering class at the Science Leadership Academy, a joint venture between the School District of Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute.

Cornwall, who had the largest range of class sizes, felt that the game worked best in the class with 28 students. “When we regrouped to hammer out new regulations, it was difficult in the large class,” she says. “Some people sat back and let other people do the talking.” Students lost some of the group feel they had in smaller groups, she says.

The lack of a clear winner bothered some students. “One of my classes was very angry,” Cornwall says, “because some of the groups felt that they had presented a compelling case.”

Wolf’s class decided to throw out the competition aspect. “If not everybody can win, then they were going to make everybody win by making the best regulation for everybody, for the environment, for the future, for their generation,” Wolf says. “They really took it personally when they were faced with the challenge of coming up with the best compromise.”

VanKouwenberg’s students took the game a little more philosophically. “They all recognized that even the best of the solutions presented was missing so much,” he says. His students also learned that solutions are rarely neat and clean. “No matter how smart and creative you are, there are going to be aspects that you’re not going to be able to cover, so you need to be able to compromise and collaborate.”

All three teachers ran the module in May. They couldn’t do it earlier because the materials were still being written. “In an ideal world with an uninterrupted schedule, I would have done it one day a week for about five or six weeks,” Cornwall says. Instead, she gave the students two weeks for out-of-class background reading and directed homework. Then she gave them two weeks of class time before the first debate.

As part of the funding that CHF received for the pilot project, each school that participates was supposed to do a public outreach program. The Science Leadership Academy’s outreach program was significantly scaled back because of a nearby building collapse, but the other two schools completed outreach programs.

Cornwall’s class presented its public outreach event at Little Flower’s parent-teacher organization meeting. The students presented a panel discussion in which the different groups were represented. They gave the audience background information on plastics, showed them video clips, explained the positions of the different groups, and distributed a ballot with proposed regulations from the different groups. In short, they did the equivalent of the first round of the role-playing game. “The parents enjoyed it,” Cornwall says.

For their community event, held at CHF, Wolf’s students turned the game into a mystery involving the death of an industry toxicologist. They filmed a video to accompany their presentation, and each group weighed in on what they thought killed “Joe Beef.”

After the presentation, the students answered audience questions. Some said the game had changed how they think about plastics and use plastics.

The next time the teachers use the module—and all three are certain there will be a next time—they plan to do it earlier in the school year. “The ideas and the science that were brought up are much better as starting points for conversation than as a culminating event” in the academic year, VanKouwenberg says.

Mackintosh agrees. “This would be good to do at the beginning of the school year, because it provides students with a nice framework of why chemistry matters,” he says. “It provides a lot of ideas that subsequent lessons can refer to.”

“As a science educator, I’m really excited about how this fits in with the next-generation standards and common-core standards”—revised curriculum standards that are currently being adopted by most U.S. states—“where students are going to be asked to do a lot more critical thinking, integration of knowledge, and presenting of arguments,” Cook says.

The writers of the game have incorporated feedback from the pilot and revised the scenario, the reading materials, and the writing assignments. The new materials for the game will be available on CHF’s website in November ( “There are no immediate plans for additional cases,” Cook says, “although the hope would be to generate a new case every two years.”


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