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Pulling Back the Veil: Using Games to Let Students Explore the Impossible

Dave Ropa is an avid game-based learning supporter. In our recent eBook release, Dave shared how he uses games in the classroom to help students understand complex material and apply that learning in meaningful ways. Dave uses games for three specific content areas in his seventh grade science class – instruction of ecology & environmental sciences, energy, and forensic science. Check out Dave’s story below and download How to Teach with Games for more game-based learning ideas.

Ecology & Environmental Science

During the first three months of the new school year, my students spend as much time outside as possible, exploring the natural world, collecting data, and trying to explain various ecological processes. Many of these are conducted in physical games that we play outside. The full-body, kinesthetic learning that these games employ allow students to remember these concepts for a long time and give them a chance to evaluate what parts of our games are accurate or need to be refined. The games give some students a chance to participate in a way that they may not normally, and they have observations to share based on their participation in the game, rather than in a concept found only in a text.

  • Predator-Prey Game – Lesson Plan
  • Predator-Prey Game with Genetics – Lesson Plan
  • Evolution by Natural Selection – Peppered Moths and Rabbits vs. Wolves – Lesson Plan
  • Econauts
  • Virulent
  • Citizen Science – Because our school is one block from Lake Mendota, students learn about and conduct 15 different water quality tests throughout the year. At the end of the year, they build upon their knowledge base by playing Citizen Science, a game that tries to find out the cause of pollution in Lake Mendota.


During a month-long integrated energy unit, students are asked to role-play a professional in the Madison community who has a particular perspective on the use of electrical energy being used in the city. Students develop an energy portfolio proposal that combines multiple energy sources and they present their proposals in order to create electricity in a low-cost, environmentally sustainable manner that does not harm tourism. Students are asked to identify the types of systems that should be used to create electricity in Madison, selecting the precise model of wind turbine, hydropower facility, IGCC power plant, or nuclear reactor.

To do this, students have a steep learning curve to figure out how these systems work. In class, students create experiments with small wind turbines, small hydropower models, and burn a variety of fuels to measure the energy released. However, they are also given the opportunity to use games that simulate the siting, size, and energy production of a variety of different wind turbines. They also get a chance to operate a nuclear reactor and compete to see which individual can operate a reactor for the greatest amount of time and generate the most profit.

Nuclear Reactor Simulator – Game assessment

This reactor simulator puts students in the control room of a nuclear reactor. Prior to playing the game, students investigate the parts of a reactor and learn what happens when control rods are raised and lowered. They also discover how the heat created by bringing together nuclear material can be transferred into steam and, ultimately, electrical energy. Students become quite competitive during the simulation and learn about some of the inherent dangers and safety mechanisms needed to operate a reactor.

Wind with Miller – Lesson Plan 

Developed by Danish Wind Industry, Wind with Miller gives students a chance to analyze the effectiveness of using wind turbines of various heights, rotor lengths, and geographical locations in terms of energy output. The simulator, while dated, can provide students with a rapid way to investigate the variables that influence the efficiency of wind turbines.

Forensic Science

During a two-month, fictional crime scene investigation, students are given a chance to explore blood typing analysis, DNA analysis, cell replication and genetics through the use of a variety of games and simulations. In order to solve the crime, students need to be able to gather, analyze, and link evidence from more than 12 different investigations taken from 25 different suspects. While they are given a chance to conduct a variety of experiments, the background knowledge they need to fully understand complex biological systems can only be gained through repetition and scaffolded learning. Because the investigation goes on for two months, students need to be able to go back to a concept and explore it to refresh their understanding. Some of the games used in the simulation include:

To learn more about how Dave and other educators use games in the classroom, download our free How to Teach with Games eBook!

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David Ropa has more than 20 years of experience working in environmental science, education, conservation, research coordination, and technical writing. With advanced degrees in environmental science, business marketing, and teaching, he has spent the past sixteen years as the 7th grade science teacher at Spring Harbor Environmental Magnet Middle School in Madison, WI. His primary goal is to inspire students to investigate the natural world and get outside. He is the recipient of numerous grants and teaching awards.


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