Hunger Games

Hunger Games is a learning environment designed to support upper elementary learners’ construction of understandings of animal foraging behaviors. It is an educational research project lead by Tom Moher’s research group at the University or Illinois Chicago (UIC). In Hunger Games, learners enact animal foraging within the context of a sequence of increasingly complex simulated scenarios involving varying conditions of competition, resource depletion, sociality, and predation. The instructional unit is designed to develop understandings of the factors that foraging animals use to guide their decisions in selecting food patches, as well as the ways in which populations of animals distribute themselves (e.g., resource matching and ideal free distributions) among available resources. The record of students’ (individual and aggregate) behaviors during enactment of the foraging simulations serves as the object of inquiry for reflective activities.

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In Hunger Games, the classroom is “transformed” into a natural habitat in which students embody the role of squirrels foraging for food. This was inspired by a longstanding practitioner tradition of using embodied activities with physical materials (e.g., chickpeas, M&Ms) to introduce foraging concepts, and the feeling that an embodied approach had several potential advantages over a distributed screen-based approach (Moher et al., submitted).

In Hunger Games, each student in the classroom is provided with a small stuffed animal (“squirrel”) that serves as his or her “avatar” during the activity. Students forage by physically moving their squirrels among a set of “food patches” of varying quality distributed around the classroom, gaining energy as a function of the elapsed time in the patch, patch quality, and competition within the patch (i.e., the presence of other squirrels). Avatars may also fall victim to predation (signaled on smaller displays adjacent to each food patch). Avatars who are “caught” are considered “injured,” and given a short “time out” period in which their squirrel cannot gain calories even if located in a patch; this allows for the introduction of concepts of predation without forcing children out of the game prematurely.

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Working closely with the UIC research lab we developed a community knowledge-building application to support individual student, small group, and whole class reflection and discourse. Within the application, students are provided with representations of both individual and aggregate data reflecting their performance during foraging bouts. At the aggregate level, students have access to an interactive version of the Harvest Graph (see image on right) that allows them to sort the distribution of individual caloric gains according to various factors including patch quality, competition strategies, and frequency of moves. At an individual level, students are provided with a “Move Tracker” (see image on left) that enables them to replay the step-by-step patch moves that they made during game play; this tool is used to support reflection on the effectiveness of their moves and to prepare students for subsequent foraging bouts. Finally, the application provides a threaded discussion tool to support development of community knowledge guided by a series of embedded inquiry prompts.

Hunger Games was successfully enacted in three grade 5 classrooms as part of a four-week curricula . Analysis of the findings is currently being conducted and will be reported on in future publications.

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