Reaching Adult Learners Through Immersive Experiences

Two college students approach a nurse in a hospital in Taiwan, unsure of what to do. She deftly reads their hesitation, then puts them to work rolling bandages and dispensing medication. Hard at work, they start asking questions about the flu epidemic currently tearing through the hospital. After talking to the nurse about the rate of infection, glancing at some infographics about herd immunity, and making notes, these budding student epidemiologists walk about 100 feet to arrive in Argentina.

Like the geography, this flu epidemic isn’t real, but rather part of an immersive learning experience we’ve created called Flu vs. You. Participants work through the same processes that real epidemiologists work through, conducting field research and formulating vaccines. On October 3, 2019, NCSE’s local volunteers led our Flu vs You program at San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum for an after-hours event for adults. After a briefing, participants visit five countries with epidemics, talking to actors playing roles like patient, doctor, and ambulance driver to understand the dynamics of each outbreak.Then they return to a “lab” where they use antigenic assays and genetic sequencing to create a viable flu vaccine.The experience provides a hands-on way to understand viral evolution and epidemiological models and gain insight into a topic about which misconceptions abound.

While many of the Breaking Down Barriers outreach activities NCSE develops are targeted to children and families, we’re aware of the growing need to reach diverse adult learners. Too often, outreach targeting adults uses a deficit model, where scientists try to transmit knowledge didactically. This not only often fails to interest adult populations that feel excluded from science, but also fails to convey information in a memorable way to those that do engage. By using theater, games, and other immersive experiences, we are piloting a model that places facilitators and participants on an equal footing, working together to solve puzzles.

NCSE views game-based learning for adults as a crucial component of informal science learning. And, since we are at the forefront of implementing these approaches, we’re interested in sharing some of the lessons learned.

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of an in-game tutorial. If you think, like we do, that outreach programs should stretch beyond only the most interested among the public, be prepared for the most common reaction to an immersive activity: hesitance and confusion. To work through this, providing simple and early success in-universe is key for continued gameplay. We typically have an easy initial task that helps players understand the story mechanics and the stakes. They then have the option to continue playing to deepen their understanding.
  • Prepare for chaos. We derived our epidemic models from five sets of real world data, with several having spikes in mortality around Day Seven. Adults who were noticing patterns decided that these graphs must be indicative of something more sinister, and several developed an intricate story to explain the outbreak that was completely separate from the actual game. Another person, a microbiologist by training, used evidence from a conversation with our epidemiologist to determine that the bird flu in China (which we play as zoonotic) had a high risk of mutating and becoming transmissible person to person. In both cases, we worked these ideas into the story. Our being able to take participant ideas and run with them means that the participants aren’t being simply told what to do and can instead use evidence to draw their own conclusions. This kind of validation allows us to really demonstrate the nature of science.
  • Take advantage of the medium. The first time we did this activity, in 2018, I spent all my time in theater roles telling participants what they needed to know. Over time, I’ve been able to pull back and help participants ask questions to help them be scientists themselves. I’ve also been able to get into the roles a little bit more, alternating between a grumpy and frazzled epidemiologist, a scared patient, and a nurse obsessing over handwashing. This allows the participants to feel like they are talking to real people, not interpreters, and feel like they have initiative to drive the story forward.
  • Allow for multiple end-points. In this game, like all of the adult activities we design, we allow for multiple points of exit. Some players only want to do the field research, and don’t want to do the lab or distribution activities. Others feel so excited to build a vaccine, they don’t want to develop a vaccination strategy. We try to validate their success with whatever they’ve done and create natural end-points. We also try to make sure that our volunteers understand that people leaving after 10 or 15 minutes of gameplay is not a failure, as that represents 10 or 15 minutes participants might otherwise not have engaged with science.

Flu vs.You has command performances during the Bay Area Science Festival October 26, 30, and 31, 2019, before moving to Iowa City. We hope to release training materials in July 2020 for staging your own immersive theatrical event. Check our for more information or contact me directly.

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.
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