English Professor Uses Board Games to Teach Climate Change

    11 November 2023

    Isidora Djukic is a biology and chemistry student at John Carroll University near Cleveland, Ohio.

    She never thought that one day she would be in a classroom where an English teacher asked her to play a board game in order to learn about climate change.

    Djukic is taking a biology class called Climate Change: Global Impacts. At the same time, she is taking an English class called Environmental Literature. Her university requires students to take two connected classes that examine the same subject in different ways.

    Debra Rosenthal, top right, worked to bring a climate change board game to her university class.
    Debra Rosenthal, top right, worked to bring a climate change board game to her university class.

    "They both focus on global climate change," Djukic said.

    Debra Rosenthal is the English professor. At first, Djukic said she was uncertain about Rosenthal's board game idea.

    "I was just like: ‘this is interesting. Like we're going to learn about climate change by playing a board game? Like how fun is this actually going to be, and how much are we actually going to take away from it?'"

    Rosenthal thought her students would gain a greater understanding about how their own ideas and experiences affect climate change. After testing the games with some adults, she got permission to buy six copies of a game called Solutions. The goal is to pick cards and then add them to the game board in a way that helps reduce global temperatures.

    There is no winner

    Students do not compete against each other. They work together to choose the best plan of action. The game is different from board games such as Monopoly, where the goal is to win.

    Rosenthal said she hoped the games would give students a chance to talk about climate change in a new way. During most classes, students read material and then discuss their ideas.

    "But by playing the games, it's a way to be social, to engage in conversation. There has to be a lot of energy around the table. It's very collaborative. And in the game that I chose to play, they really were able to work together and try to come up with a solution so that the planet was not destroyed."

    During the class, she said, students laughed, disagreed and had to call for votes as a way to decide how to move forward in the game.

    Djukic said it was a "way to have fun...while also learning about such a serious subject."

    Both Djukic and Rosenthal said many American high school students do not get a lot of information about climate change. The connected classes at John Carroll permit students to, as Djukic said, "take a deeper dive into the science of global climate change...This linked pair really opened my eyes."

    Climate educator approves

    A comment like that would make Megan Yousef smile. She is a climate educator based in Cleveland. She was one of the people who took part in Rosenthal's test event.

    Yousef uses a game called Climate Fresk to teach people about the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Fresk is also a French nonprofit organization.

    Yousef said the Fresk is a kind of climate card game that helps people "get their heads around the problem. The IPCC report is 4000 pages long."

    Yousef's game has 42 cards. She said groups that play the game have a discussion when they place the cards on a long table.

    If a player has a card called "destruction of the water cycle," they might start a discussion about severe storms, such as the one that flooded parts of California in August.

    The goal of a Fresk is not to win, Yousef said. The idea is for players to learn about climate change and feel "energized" to help their communities.

    "It's very powerful for people to come together and acknowledge that other people care about this problem too," she said.

    World games

    Yousef said the Fresk game started in France and 1 million people have played it. She said she knows people like her, in Australia, India, China, Thailand and many European nations, have worked to bring the game to students. They have brought it to health events and financial groups.

    Rosenthal said some of the games she looked at would be good for students who are already good at English. One, called Carbonique, is made for French speakers, so her students would need to use a translation program to turn the words into English.

    The games are global, Djukic said. That is because she and her classmates said they were able to see how one player's decision about agriculture affected another player on the other side of the world.

    She said the games showed her that "in the game of climate change and the climate crisis, no individual wins."

    "It's either we all suffer from this, or we all somehow collaborate to work our way out of this and turn the clock back on climate change."

    In Djukic's opinon, that is a good lesson for any student to learn.

    I'm Dan Friedell.

    Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    focus –v. to place one's attention on something

    engage –v. to get involved in an issue or activity

    conversation –n. an informal talk involving two or more people

    collaborative –adj. involving two or more people working together toward a goal

    deep dive idiom (informal) to more closely examine something

    pair –n. two of something

    get one's head around (something) –idiomatic expression (informal) to make an attempt to understand something

    acknowledge –v. to show that you know something exists

    turn the clock back –idiomatic expression (informal) to bring back the past or make things like they were in the past