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Scenarios, Stakeholders, Autonomy, and Choice

Using Role-Play to Facilitate Transformational Learning Experiences

Journal of College Science Teaching—May/June 2020 (Volume 49, Issue 5)

By David Green and Mary Kay Cassani

A role-play activity is presented that was designed for a STEM education learning experience to enrich science literacy, collaboration, and critical-thinking skills in undergraduate science courses. During the roleplay, learners assumed the roles of critical stakeholders involved with Everglades restoration activities. After conducting research and relating academic content to relevant, real-world contextual situations, learners participated in a mock town hall event. Open deliberation and debates stimulated interest and engagement. Emergent benefits from this roleplay activity included collaborating effectively, forming evidence-based perspectives, and using metacognitive strategies.


Collaboration and critical-thinking are skills required of college graduates to succeed in modern professional environments. Unfortunately, traditional lecture-based environments are not necessarily structured to help college students demonstrate proficiency of these crucial skills. Reluctant students often choose not to contribute to a learning environment, perhaps because of poor experiences in previous classrooms. Thus, educators may experiment with nontraditional teaching approaches to facilitate student engagement. One nontraditional approach is role-play, where students assume the responsibility of a key stakeholder within the context of a larger classroom activity.

Role-play activities align academic content with complex scenarios that relate to students’ daily lives. Students navigate autonomous paths through a semi-structured activity-based learning experience, where they assume the responsibility of key stakeholders. Multiple perspectives and collaborative attitudes interact to yield a team-based learning environment where no outcome is pre-established. McDaniel (2000) listed four critical elements in developing a successful role-play exercise: background knowledge, perspectives, situation, and management. Successful role-play requires the instructor to have both limited involvement and flexibility in accepting/managing the outcome of the exercise.

We applied this approach by combining an introductory environmental science course with a required upper-level environmental sustainability course (“University Colloquium”). Combining students with varying academic experiences fostered rich, nuanced exchanges. All students were provided the same scenario, background information, and supplemental readings (that focused on Everglades’ science and social/cultural issues). The role-play was conducted in a SCALE-UP room during regular class time, and lasted three hours, including introduction and testing (average class size was 49 students). Pre-/posttests were administered, which assessed both cognitive and attitudinal changes. Students completed reflective journal entries. Inaccuracies and problems areas were addressed during the postexercise debriefing session.

Everglades restoration is a critical scientific, social, economic, and political process with local, state, and national implications. Thus, our role-play exercise centered on the decision of a hypothetical water management district to allocate scarce water stored in Lake Okeechobee (please refer to the Appendix for the role-play exercise facilitator’s guide). During the role-play, where we mimicked a town hall-style debate with politicians, students were assigned to small groups (four or five students), and each group assumed one of the following stakeholder roles: commissioners (with personal interests in water usage), engineering staff, news media, east coast water managers, west coast water managers, citrus industry, ranchers, sugar industry, land developers, environmentalists, fishing guides, and recreation/tourism industry.

Students conducted research through the lens of their stakeholder group, selected the best option for water management, and presented a persuasive summary to the commissioners. These commissioners openly debated before voting on the final outcome. Following the vote, students reflected on what the management decision would mean to their stakeholder’s interests. Posttest scores were higher than pretest scores for all questions. In addition, students responded favorably to the exercise (as indicated in their open-ended comments).

We observed three advantages after integrating this role-play activity. First, students effectively collaborated to evaluate relevant and complex real-world scenarios. Second, student teams formed evidence-driven perspectives to support their positions as stakeholders. Third, students employed metacognitive strategies, where they critically reflected on the overall learning experience.



Facilitator’s guide for the Everglades role-play exercise.

Learning objectives: By the end of this exercise, learners will be able to do the

  • Describe the flow of water through the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades (KOE) watershed;
  • Understand the management of water distribution in the KOE watershed;
  • Compare and contrast the myriad needs of various stakeholders who are dependent on the water within the KOE watershed;
  • Explain the water quality and water quantity problems being addressed by the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP);
  • Participate in a real-world scenario that connects course content to political/environmental/social decision-making processes;
  • Collaborate effectively with peers;
  • Evaluate relevant and complex real-world scenarios;
  • Form evidence-driven perspectives to support persuasive arguments; 
  • Employ metacognitive strategies by critically reflecting on the overall learning experience.

Everglades role-play background information and scenarios description

Weather patterns have major influences on the Everglades landscape. For instance, most rainfall occurs during the months of June to November during the wet season. Yet, during the dry season, from November to May, only isolated showers happen and rainfall is scarce. During the dry season, water levels in freshwater ecosystems (e.g., marshes and cypress domes) drop, and life in these systems is relegated to trying to survive in dry season refugia.

Humans also need access to water, whether it is for household use, agricultural use, industrial use, urban use, or flood control. Typically, during peak dry season conditions, water restrictions are put on household uses in our region, which minimizes the amount of water each household is allowed to use. The agricultural lands also need plenty of water to support their economic interests. In fact, the agricultural industry is one of the primary economic engines for the state of Florida. 

Inland water supply supports the needs of our coastal estuaries as well. An estuary is where freshwater from the interior of the peninsula mixes with saline waters from the Gulf of Mexico and is home to many recreationally and commercially important fish and shellfish species. These areas (e.g., mangrove forests and seagrass beds) are called essential fish habitat or nursery grounds. Any alteration to the natural delivery of freshwater to these fragile coastal estuaries degrades the estuary and life there is damaged. In addition to the ecological significance, coastal estuaries draw millions of tourists to the region each year and support the economic needs of local businesses, resorts, and fishing guides.

The South Florida Water Management District is in charge of water supplies in the KOE watershed, including the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. It is the dry season and freshwater is hard to come by! The region has been suffering from a long-lasting drought, which makes the situation that much worse. Many stakeholders need access to the water coming from Lake Okeechobee. Unfortunately, due to the drought, there is just not enough water supply to meet the demand.  

The Board of Governors for the Water Management District has been given three scenarios: 

  1. All water releases from Lake Okeechobee will be made to the south, and none to the Caloosahatchee River so that natural flow through the greater Everglades ecosystem is maintained and wildlife thrives.
  2. All water releases from Lake Okeechobee will be made to canals that serve populated areas on the east coast so that the needs of humans are met during the dry season when water is in scarce supply.
  3. Water releases will be allocated to serve the needs of the agricultural community for irrigation of crops (primarily sugar cane, citrus, vegetables, and ornamental plants), and for livestock. Some of this water will move south, with minimal pulses of water to the Caloosahatchee, and minimal releases to east coast canals. 

You will have a role to play in the meeting, as a stakeholder, a board member, news media, or engineer, based on random selection. As a stakeholder, select one of the three alternatives that best represents your interests. You will be part of a group making a brief oral presentation to the board, justifying your position in order to persuade them to make the choice that favors your interests. Board members will run the meeting and make the final decision. Other roles are explained below.

Stakeholder role descriptions

Environmentalist: You know that the health of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries is dependent on regular, timed releases of water from Lake Okeechobee. Withholding water or releasing too much, especially in the wrong season, damages sea grass beds and puts excess nutrients in the estuary, causing algae blooms. 

City/utility manager (west coast): Your city water supply is drawn from the Caloosahatchee River, just upstream from the last lock that separates freshwater from brackish, untreatable water. The water is getting saltier and the water plant cannot treat salty water. Freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee keep the water within treatable limits. 

City/utility manager (east coast): Your city water supply is drawn from canals that are connected to the Water Storage Areas (WSA) south and east of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. When releases to the WSA are limited, water supplies to your drinking water treatment plants are smaller and have poorer quality.

Tourism/recreational fishing (rivers and estuaries): Healthy estuaries, clean beaches with no algae (caused by excess nutrients from pulsed Lake Okeechobee releases), and a natural cycling of fresh and salt water in the estuaries are what bring tourists to your business. A good level of water in the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River means good fishing, birding, and kayaking. 

Tourism/recreational fishing (Lake Okee-chobee): You are fishing/boating/kayaking guides on Lake Okeechobee. Your livelihood depends on the level of water in the lake. High water means grass and algae beds are flooded, providing good cover for fry, bait fish, and bass. Low water means concentrated nutrients, poor cover, and potential fish kills. 

Ranchers: You raise calves from birth to six months and have a dairy herd. Your breeding stock depends on water from shallow wells on grazing land. The amount of water you can pump is limited by a water management district permit, and the water level in your wells depends on the level of water in the agricultural canals.

Agriculture (vegetables): You have a large farming operation of several hundred to thousands of acres. You raise primarily winter vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc.) In the winter you pump water from canals and shallow wells on your property, and the land is fallow (unplanted) in the summer. The amount of water you can pump is limited by a water management district permit, and the water level in your wells depends on the level of water in the canals.

Agriculture (sugar cane): You have a large farming operation of several hundred to thousands of acres. You raise sugar cane on extensive holdings. The land needs to be moist/wet for most of the year, except in the fall during harvest. Every three years the fields are planted with rice and kept flooded. You pump water from canals that are fed directly from Lake Okeechobee, and from shallow wells on your property. The amount of water you can pump is limited by a water management district permit, and the water level in your wells depends on the level of water in the canals.

Agriculture (citrus): You have a large farming operation of several hundred to thousands of acres. You raise citrus on large commercial plots. Citrus is grown on well-drained soil, but must have a steady supply of water, especially when fruiting, or else the fruit will not develop. Fruiting season can be any time of the year, depending on the variety of citrus. You pump water from canals and shallow wells on your property. The amount of water you can pump is limited by a water management district permit, and the water level in your wells depends on the level of water in the canals.

Water management district engineers and staff: Your job is to present the various options and your recommendations to the district board and to be able to explain to citizens what the options mean to them, including impacts to their livelihoods and quality of life. 

News media: You will be observing and reporting on the meeting. You will be writing a newspaper article or preparing a short on-the-spot video about the meeting, including interviews of attendees and board members. 

Commissioner 1: You are a real estate developer with several large, upscale developments on both the east and the west coasts. The grass is green, well irrigated, and fertilized, and every home has a swimming pool.

Commissioner 2: Your family has lived in Florida for generations, and you have seen the natural land swallowed up by developments as more and more people move to Florida. You deplore the damage to the Everglades ecosystem and want to see it restored.

Commissioner 3: Your engineering firm specialized in sustainable construction, including buildings, water supplies, wastewater treatment/water reclamation systems, and smart growth.

Commissioner 4: You consider yourself an average citizen, with above-average intelligence. You have no special interests except to see that the decisions are fairly made, based on hard evidence and not on emotion or special interests. You want to ensure that decisions do not put excess hardship on anyone, and do not cause excessive damage to the environment. 

Commissioner 5: You and your family have farmed around Lake Okeechobee for generations. You now have large holdings in sugar and citrus along the Caloosahatchee River and south of Lake Okeechobee.

  • Classroom computers for learners to use;
  • Whiteboard with whiteboard markers (several colors recommended);
  • Digital display and laptop for slideshow;
  • Smartphone to capture photos;
  • Field journal and writing utensil (for observations and notetaking);
  • Everglades role-play background information and scenarios description;
  • Stakeholder role descriptions;
  • Background information on the Everglades, CERP, Lake Okeechobee, and water distribution controversies (posted online in the learning management system for review by students before the role-play session).






(Presession) Background information and resources provided to students for review via the learning management system

Individual learner preparation

15 minutes

Introduction to Everglades didactics slideshow and arrange into stakeholder groups

Background knowledge

15 minutes

Prequiz knowledge check and prestudent assessment of their learning gains (SALG) survey

Incoming knowledge and values; data collection

15 minutes

Outline the roles, responsibilities, and expected outcomes

Set the context

30 minutes

Stakeholder interest group research and collaboration


Engaged participants; creative mindsets

5 minutes

Stakeholders prepare their position statements


30 minutes

Stakeholder presentations


Application and oral presentations

15 minutes

Board discussion

Critical analysis

10 minutes

Stakeholder responses

Critical analysis

5 minutes

Board holds final vote


5 minutes

News media shares their media pieces 

Critical analysis

15 minutes

Instructor-led discussion and debrief


Analysis; reflection; knowledge

20 minutes

Postquiz knowledge check; postSALG survey; learner feedback and critique of role-play exercise

Data collection


(Postsession) Open-ended reflection journal entry



Sequence of the town hall meeting
  • Brief introduction to the exercise by instructors.
  • Time for stakeholder interest groups and engineers to conduct research and prepare their presentations. 
  • Commissioners and news media circulate and discuss the issue with stakeholder interest groups.
  • Commissioners decide who will chair the meeting. Engineers will present each of the three options to the board.
  • Each interest group will be given three minutes to present to the board.
  • The board will discuss the options and the presentations in public, and make a recommendation on the option of their choice in public. 
  • If time permits, interest groups will be given a one-minute time period to respond to the commissioners’ majority choice. 
  • After the response period, commissioners will make a final vote. 
  • News media will prepare their media pieces during the meeting and give them after the commissioner’s vote.
  • Discussion and debrief of exercise by instructors and community visitors.  Postknowledge check.
  • All learners reflect individually on the entire learning experience as a reflection journal exercise.

David Green ( is a leadership fellow with the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement and was the director of educational technologies within the Educational Development Office at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Miami, Florida. Mary Kay Cassani is a retired faculty member from Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida.


McDaniel K. 2000. Four elements of successful historical role-playing in the classroom. The History Teacher, 33(3), 357–362.

Earth & Space Science Teaching Strategies

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