Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Fields of Fuel: Using a Video Game to Support Reasoning about Sustainability

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Fields of Fuel: Using a Video Game to Support Reasoning about Sustainability

Article excerpt


Imagine an Earth science teacher looking for an engaging activity that explores the costs and benefits of extracting natural resources. Now imagine an AP environmental science teacher needing a lesson that explores how everyday decision making affects biodiversity and how that, in turn, can affect us.

In both scenarios, the classes are exploring science content that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) and that connects to larger issues of sustainability. Everyday we make choices that affect sustainability: Should we buy an electric car? Build a compost pile? Use a rain barrel? Become vegetarian? Buy only local meats? Our lawmakers face much bigger decisions about sustainability: What are the costs and benefits of instituting a cap and trade system to reduce sulfur dioxide or other harmful emissions? Will requiring power plants to burn natural gas instead of coal reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

What information do we need, at both the individual and community level, for making such decisions? How will we know whether our decisions are successful? Science students, such as those in the classes mentioned above, should engage in discussing these questions. But exploring issues of sustainability can be challenging for teachers and students alike. Effectively evaluating sustainability requires balancing tradeoffs using rich, complex data sets.


A sustainable system is commonly defined as one that is environmentally benign, economically viable, and socially acceptable. Sustainability then has to be understood and evaluated in the context of many dimensions (Feng 2012; Shepardson et al. 2007; Sternang and Lundholm 2012). For example, individuals and lawmakers have to balance environmental concerns with economic challenges and consider whether socially acceptable practices are environmentally appropriate. Reasoning about sustainability also requires thinking about processes that occur over both small and large geographic areas for various periods of time. For example, what is best for one farm today may not be best for all the nation's farms together in perpetuity. These different dimensions (economic, environmental, and social) and their interactions across multiple scales make reasoning in this domain incredibly challenging (Eberbach et al. 2012; Goh et al. 2012). Often, there are no simple, easily identifiable "right" answers to questions of sustainability.

What can teachers do?

To help teachers engage students in discussions about sustainability, we designed Fields of Fuel, a multiplayer, web-based simulation game that allows players to explore the environmental and economic trade-offs of a realistic sustainable system. Computer-based simulations of real-world phenomena engage students and have been shown to support student learning (Gee 2003; Squire 2006) as players manipulate the inner workings of complex systems and receive real-time data about how the system behaves (Wilensky and Stroup 1999).

The Fields of Fuel game explores sustainability around the issue of fossil fuel consumption (Wood, Long, and Morehouse 2004) and related climate change (IPCC 2013). Food crops like corn can be used to produce ethanol as a supplement to or replacement for fossil fuels. However, researchers are also working to make liquid fuel from inedible plants and plant parts, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and corn stalks. This "biofuel" could ultimately replace one-third of the oil we use for transportation (DOE 2011). There are still questions about how to produce large quantities of bioenergy crops in ways that are environmentally and economically acceptable for the global community.

In the game, students (or groups of students) take on the role of a farmer with multiple fields attempting to raise and sell crops (energy-dense corn, eco-friendly switchgrass, or cover crop), and manage fields sustainably, making decisions about such factors as fertilizer use and crop rotation. …

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