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

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Biological and Agricultural Engineering Division Technical Session 1

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Paper Authors


Erin Ingram University of Nebraska - Lincoln

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Erin Ingram is a science literacy and community engagement coordinator interested in designing K-12 STEM learning experiences and educator professional development for use in formal and informal education settings.

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Jennifer Keshwani University of Nebraska - Lincoln

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I am a biomedical engineer by training that has built a career in science literacy and STEM education. My position combines my technical background with my strengths as an includer and curious explorer. I am constantly amazed that I get to play every day – while inviting others to join in the fun.

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Deepak Keshwani University of Nebraska - Lincoln

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Deepak Keshwani is an Associate Professor of Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). He also holds an appointment as a Faculty Fellow for the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute. In addition to teaching and advising both undergraduate and graduate students, Deepak coordinates the Justin Smith Morrill Scholars, a campus-wide, co-curricular program focused on civic engagement and critical societal issues in food, agriculture, and natural resource systems. He also mentors the AGfutures learning community in leadership, service, and civic engagement. Deepak was appointed a faculty fellow in the UNL College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources in recognition of his work in the area of student success and retention.

Deepak's scholarly interests are in the areas of bioprocess and biosystems modeling. His research efforts currently include integrated systems modeling related to the Food-Energy-Water Nexus with a focus on Nebraska’s agricultural systems and biofuel industries. He also utilizes this integrated models to develop immersive educational video games. He is also engaged in scholarly work in the area of student success and retention with a focus on faculty-staff partnership models.

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Conner Lunn



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For the last 12 years I have been a secondary science teacher in the public school system of Nebraska. I am currently teaching 7th grade science at Hastings Middle School. In addition I am a sponsor of our ever expanding community garden that we run here on our campus.

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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.

In order 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.

Ingram, E., & Keshwani, J., & Keshwani, D., & Lunn, C., & BINFIELD, J. (2022, August), Prairie Protector: Systems thinking and STEM-informed decision-making in agroecosystems through game-based learning Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN. 10.18260/1-2--40545

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