Guest Blog: Plague Inc. in the classroom - infecting students with knowledge

Audra Swarthout, Associate Professor of Biology at Delta College, recently reached out to us to explore using Plague Inc. in the classroom as a tool to engage Microbiology students. A few different schools have used Plague Inc. successfully in their lessons in the past so it was great to be able to hear another case study of how gaming can be used as an educational tool. You can read a blog Audra has wrote on her experiences below:

I am an Associate Professor of Biology at Delta College, which is located in University Center, MI, near the Saginaw Bay. Our college serves the Tri-Cities of Midland, Bay City and Saginaw as well as surrounding areas. My students are primarily pre-Allied Health students, who plan to go into Nursing, Surgical Technology and Dental Hygiene or Dental Assisting.

Since 2013 my General Microbiology students have been playing Plague Inc. in the classroom. In the Fall 2014 semester, we were lucky enough to upgrade to a laptop cart loaded with Plague Inc: Evolved. Playing the game stimulates a greater level of interest in certain topics than the students otherwise normally have. In addition, students really enjoy critically analysing the game for realistic vs. unrealistic aspects.

I use this assignment to reinforce the topics of microbial genetics, epidemiology and pathogenesis. Since instituting this assignment I have walked in on several just-before-class lively discussions on whether or not microbes mutate the way they do in the game. As a teacher, this is provides a great jumping off point for further discussion on mutation and evolution in microbes. My students are also intrigued by how country of origin - where they choose to start their plague - affects the spread of disease. They often compare notes on where each of them started their plague and how they think that affected the game. This leads us to much more meaningful and lively discussions on the role socioeconomics play in the spread and treatment of disease than we would otherwise have.

The game also leads many students to ask if microbes can really evolve to have "all of those different modes of transmission” and to affect "all the body systems". This has led to some great conversations on the capabilities of microbes and also provides a context for having students learn about why certain microbes affect certain body systems / cells but not others, and why some microbes have only one mode of transmission but others may have several.

By having the students learn about these topics by playing Plague Inc. they almost forget that they are learning about them because they are an important part of their curriculum, not just a way to beat the game. After playing the game, most students self-reported a greater understanding of microbial evolution, epidemiology and pathogenesis than they had before. My anecdotal evidence, based on their ability to discuss these topics after playing, supports this.

Many of my students continue to play outside of class and have recruited their friends to play as well. But most importantly - as a teacher it is exciting to use a tool that generates so much excitement and interest amongst my students.

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