The following article was written by the assistant director of the Center for Health Innovations at Adelphi University, Meghan McPherson, and published in the 9th Annual Journal of Homeland Security. Read as she explains how the introduction of interactive simulations into the graduate level courses of the Emergency Management department has pushed the program and its students forward.
The Applied Learning Environment: Using Simulation Cells for Graduate Studies in Emergency Management and Homeland Security
Meghan McPherson, MPP, CEM
Center for Health
Innovation and Adjunct Faculty
Graduate Programs in Emergency Management
Interest in online graduate programs in emergency management and homeland security has grown exponentially over the last five years. Geography often limits the ability of students to attend in-person classes, and the online format allows for increased access to coursework. In this field of study, students are often employed in positions that utilize shift scheduling which limits their ability to attend in-person courses. For these and other reasons, online learning can broaden the reach and increase the appeal to students who might otherwise be unable to attend emergency management programs.
However, formidable challenges remain in teaching these online courses such as identifying the best techniques for engaging students and enhancing online content. Current tools to foster group learning, such as message boards, are employed. However, these approaches should be augmented with additional activities and interactive exercises to foster active learning.
In consideration of these opportunities and limitations, in the fall of 2013 Adelphi University (AU) began the conversion of the Emergency Management graduate certificate and Masters of Science programs to a fully online format. Discussions among the faculty and administration focused on how to offer a high level of interactive curriculum for the evolving subject matter. It was imperative that the faculty find ways to deliver curriculum in a manner that was both engaging and forward thinking. In the graduate-level Introduction to Emergency Management class, in-class techniques were migrated and modified for use in the online environment, while still introducing critical terminology and concepts. Examples of new activities include asking students to complete “red cell” assignments, as well as to obtain basic NIMS compliance. Other assignments asked the student to assume the role of a policy maker in a disaster, discussing the policy mechanisms and approaches they would use to solve the issues facing their constituents.
One such technique added to the curriculum is interactive simulation cells that can be used to engage the students and accelerate learning. This pilot cell was based on the Adelphi University campus and included situations that dealt with suspicious packages, bomb threats, evacuation of large populations, working with first responders, and handling social and traditional media. Students were given the above injects voiced by one of the public safety officers on their screen and then were asked multiple questions as to what they would do if they were the emergency manager on scene and the basis for those decisions. They heard simulated cell phone calls from concerned students and were confronted with the media entering campus when tweets alerted the public to the situation. Once this simulation is completed, faculty review the answers entered by students through multiple formats, including excel. Students are given feedback and can be actively taught through their own decision making process in the simulation cell.
This sim-cell encompassed many of the terminology and concepts required in the field and were assigned after the material was presented in the online classroom format. The simulation cell was built in a backward design approach. Designers adhered to learning goals chosen for the assignment, with the faculty member also providing all of the injects, situational awareness information, timing, and progression of events. AU provided an educational media producer, media lab producer, and instructional designers to develop the final result. Media staff used Adobe Captivate as the interface for the sim-cell, adding in HD video, auditory cues, and sound effects as needed.
The use of this type of sim-cell has proved invaluable as part of the toolbox for online emergency management learning at Adelphi. Students must understand the basic concepts of the discipline, but also must be able to apply them in the field when facing decision points. It is essential they understand that emergency situations are dynamic and nebulous, requiring emergency management personnel to make quick decisions in the “fog of an emergency.”
Once the “bones” of the simulation cell have been completed, faculty are able to modify as needed moving forward. Currently, a simulation cell is in development involving an active shooter on campus. This type of simulation allows faculty the flexibility to design an online simulation that reflects current threats. This is the first time that this type of technology was used at Adelphi University and was highlighted at the High Impact Teaching in a Digital Age Conference held at Adelphi for faculty in Spring 2015.
As the profession of emergency management and homeland security moves forward and becomes more of a substantial academic discipline, it is crucial that we use the latest tools to teach our students about the ever-changing environment in a way that they can apply in the real world where they must make quick decisions in high stress situations. Working in a simulated environment in graduate school is vital for building their own knowledge and decision making infrastructure.