Prairie Protector: Systems thinking and STEM-informed decision-making in agroecosystems through game-based learning

Erin Ingram, Jennifer Keshwani, Deepak R. Keshwani, Jordan M. Binfield

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


The Nebraska Sandhills represents one of the world's last remaining intact grasslands. However, the Sandhills and other grasslands in the Great Plains are currently threatened by "the green glacier"- a slow but steady encroachment of invasive tree species into ecosystems which have historically been dominated by grasses and wildflowers. These invasive species not only threaten the habitat of native wildlife but also threaten the livelihood of ranchers who depend on the vast grasslands to feed their livestock. To address this complex agroecosystem issue, there is a need to prepare a science-literate citizenry equipped with systems thinking and STEM-informed decision-making skills. Game-based learning offers an educational approach for players to practice working cooperatively, building empathy for diverse stakeholders, and enacting cooperative strategies and policies. Game-based learning opportunities provide distance between players and the issue to circumvent emotional responses, while empowering learners to test different strategies in a low-stakes and fun way. Using a game-based learning approach, our team created a digital game, Prairie Protector. Supporting instructional materials were also developed including lesson plans and game tutorials targeted for use at middle school and high school grade levels. Prairie Protector allows players to build empathy for ranchers and other landowners who are faced with difficult land management decisions given the constraints of limited time, money, labor, and other resources. The learning experience supports students in designing successful land management strategies to mitigate spread of Eastern Redcedar, analyzing gameplay decisions to compare outcomes of competitive and cooperative management strategies, and recognizing long-term economic and ecological value of cooperative management strategies. Prairie Protector has received enthusiastic reception from science and agriculture education teachers. After experiencing Prairie Protector at a game-based professional development workshop in 2020, all 21 participants reported plans to integrate the game into classroom instruction. In this paper, we evaluate the impact of Prairie Protector and associated standards-based learning activities on middle school student development of on systems thinking and empathy building in a formal science classroom.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Aug 23 2022
Event129th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition: Excellence Through Diversity, ASEE 2022 - Minneapolis, United States
Duration: Jun 26 2022Jun 29 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering


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