Interactive Web Simulation, Developed at Bowdoin, Teaches About Slavery

Story posted November 06, 2001

"Flight to Freedom," an interactive Web simulation activity developed to help high school teachers teach about slavery in 19th-century America, will be unveiled at a two-day teaching conference November 9-10, 2001, at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine.

The conference, "Teaching American History Using the World Wide Web," is organized through the College Board. It will feature keynote speaker Matt Gallman, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, as well as workshops, discussion groups, computer labs, and lesson plan development led by the staff of Bowdoin's Educational Technology Center (ETC) and history professor Patrick Rael. Up to 70 high school history teachers from around New England will be in attendance.

Flight to Freedom
"Flight to Freedom," developed by Prof. Patrick Rael and the College's ETC, with the assistance of Bowdoin students, allows "players" to experience slavery through the eyes of those who lived it. Players take on the persona of an African American historical figure (Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth), and work to escape to Canada, all the while being challenged by a series of events taken from authentic slave narratives.

"Historical simulations are much more than games," Rael points out. "They challenge users to confront the past in a way that is fundamentally different from books and lectures. By establishing parameters for behavior, and systems of incentives and rewards, simulations permit users to experience the problems and conflicts that motivated those in the past."

After being faced with a random scenario during each turn, a "Flight to Freedom" player must decide how to act next by choosing from among specific options. For example, the player takes on the persona of a young slave approached by her master for sexual favors. When she resists, she is beaten, sold to a trader, chained, and shipped to New Orleans to be sold again. What should her next step be? An escape attempt? Should she try to find a job to earn money? Or should she try to learn about family members on another plantation? The player's goal is to gather all her family members together, and escape to the freedom of Canada (the dominant concern of enslaved African Americans at that time).

Each action will either add to or subtract from a player's score, which is calculated based on how much money and food they have, how good their health is, and how many family members they have located. The player "wins" the game if s/he is able to find all their family members and transport them to Canada before their score reaches zero.

All events and options included in the simulation have been meticulously researched and gathered from authentic slave narratives. The database currently features over 750 events. Because the simulation is Web based, the database can--and will--be updated and expanded indefinitely.

The project has been in development for over two years. Rael oversaw all content development, while ETC took charge of programming and Web design--actually creating the simulation. Bowdoin history students researched the narratives, wrote up the scenarios, and compiled an extensive bibliography accessible from the "Flight to Freedom" Web site.

"Our students are growing up in a world of ever-expanding media that constantly vie for their attention," says Rael. "It is crucial that educators take advantage of new technologies, to both hold students' attention, and to address their wide variety of learning styles."

Rael sees "Flight to Freedom" as more than a tool to teach about slavery. It is a model for teaching about all areas of history. Interactive simulations could put students in the shoes of Americans facing poverty during the depression, or political figures making the decisions leading to war. An infinite number of historical events lend themselves to this kind of "active" learning.

In addition to teaching high school students about history, "Flight to Freedom," in its development, has been a learning tool for Rael's own students, a situation that will continue. "I plan to incorporate expansion of the Web site into all of my relevant courses, with students expanding our database of events, and contributing the results of their own explorations. After all, there is no better way to learn than to teach."

"Flight to Freedom" can be viewed by
clicking here.

Teaching Conference
The focus of the two-day conference "Teaching American History Using the World Wide Web" will be to offer educators the training and tools they need to employ the Web to teach high school history courses. Bringing together college professors and high school teachers in the same discipline, it will blend scholarship with teaching techniques.

In recent years, dozens of new Web sites designed specifically to assist educators have appeared (providing access to primary source materials, offer research tools like search engines, etc.). While Web sites useful for studying American history have grown rapidly, opportunities for integrating that knowledge into the classroom have lagged behind. Teachers are faced with dozens of new online tools, but have few opportunities to explore them, let alone integrate them into the classroom.

The teaching conference will offer an opportunity for teachers to work with this new array of Web technologies, become more knowledgeable about the American past, and put that knowledge to work in the electronic classroom. "Flight to Freedom" will be one of the tools introduced.

Dr. Matt Gallman, a nationally known scholar of the Civil War era, will lecture on trends in the study of mid-19th century America, and work with participants in discussion groups. Peter Schilling, director of Bowdoin's ETC, will discuss "Adapting to Learning: Pedagogy and IT."

Under the guidance of the ETC staff, conference participants will explore Web resources in a computer lab, and develop lesson plans around their use. The resulting body of lesson plans will be made available to a wide range of educators through the Web.

More information about the Teaching Conference can be found here.

More information about Bowdoin's Educational Technology Center can be found here.

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