Reacting Science - Using Reacting to the PastÔ  (RTTP) to teach science


RTTP science courses have the potential to address both of the non-major students and the science majors in a unique way and to place them on an equal footing. RTTP games are inherently engaging. The pedagogy has been shown to foster this engagement with ideas, both abstract and practical. Applying this pedagogy to science material can similarly engage students who think they are not interested in science and convey the process that scientists use to understand the universe, the big ideas that have resulted, and the way in which science informs and interacts with political, economic, religious, and social issues. RTTP science games can use simple laboratory or demonstration components so that students can see with their own eyes what science is about. Thus they gain an “Aristotelian” understanding of science, having seen it for themselves. It becomes more than something they read about or seen drawings of.

RTTP is about conflict and there are many conflicts that provide rich opportunities for reacting games. Many of these are about issues if political importance for the current generation of students. The debates within the EU over acid rain control provides one example of a game which offers a rich tapestry of science set in a critical historical moment.

In October, 2009, the NSF-CCLI program announced their support of a 3 year, $300,000 project to bring more chapter length RTTP Science games to the curriculum and conduct a detailed assessment of their effectiveness. This project includes PI's from Elon College, James Madison University, and the collaboration with the RTTP home base at Barnard College. This project will create four chapter length RTTP games:

    The Pluto Debate - for physics and astronomy courses

    Development of the USDA Food Pyramid - for nutrition, food science, and general science courses

    The Carbon Cycle and Climate Change - for environmental science, public policy, and general science courses

    Ways and Means - 1935 - Development of the Social Security System - for quantitative literacy, statistics, and actuarial course

    European Response to SO2 Pollution -1984 - for chemistry, environmental, and general science courses

    Catalytic Converters and the European Response to NOx pollution, 1987 - for chemistry, environmental, and general science courses

     Chemistry at Karlsruhe - 1860 - for general chemistry and history of science courses.

     Feeding Africa 2002 - GM Foods or Starvation - for chemistry, environmental, biology, and general science courses

    Diet and the Killer Diseases - McGovern Hearings 1977 - for general science, nutrition, and health courses. 

    London 1854: Cesspits, Cholera and Conflict over the Broad Street Pump - for general science, biology, and history of science courses

Game materials available Reacting Science web site. Contact me by email for key to Instructor's Materials.

Full length Games  - 3 weeks of game play

Acid Rain in Europe- 1979-87

by David and Susan Henderson

This game  is set in a series of international meetings sponsored by the United Nations which occurred in the Europe between 1979 and 1987. In addition to the member nations of the EU, the Eastern European nations and the Soviet Union also participated along with the United States and Canada. At issue is what to do about air pollution which leads to acid rain and destroys both the environment and the infrastructure of the region.

Factions in the game will bring different perspectives to these game sessions. The faction representing the Scandinavian nations are the primary victims of the acid rain and will bring their passionate demands for relief to the meetings. The major industrial nations, England, France, and Germany are the major polluters and each has a different political milieu. The French are strong advocates of nuclear power while Germany sees the rise of the Green Party during this period and repudiates nuclear power. During the course of the game, Margaret Thatcher is elected in England and moves the energy economy of England from coal to natural gas. This  leads students to an understanding of energy options and politics. The countries of southern Europe are neither major polluters nor recipients of the pollution and are thus indeterminate. The Eastern block are the worst polluters and also suffer from the pollution. They have weak economies and limited options. Their participation, along with the Soviet Union, is a bid for acceptance in the West. During the game, the Gamemaster (instructor) will announce various political changes as they occur and students will need to adapt their rhetoric to these changing circumstances. The United States and Canada are present primarily as observers, but they will also have strong agendas that they will try to press on the EU.

There are numerous scientific issues from chemistry, biology, and environmental science which will be central to the game and which students will need to learn. There are demonstrations and labs which are very simple to implement but which will provide first hand knowledge of fundamentals. The idea of acids and bases and the concept of equilibrium are key issues. Equilibrium is a concept which extends beyond the sciences and into economics and other fields. Other fundamental include the carbon, nitrogen and sulfur cycles in the environment and the way in which energy policy effects all of these. The nature of the biological effects of acids and nutrients involves the interaction of chemistry, biology, and ecology. The background skills learned in this course are of general applicability and will inform decision making in other problems that students will encounter in the future.

The course will also introduce students to Environmental Philosophy and Environmental Economics. Readings and discussions will introduce the fundamentals of these areas. Different factions will be tasked with applying various philosophical positions in their arguments. The economic aspects of the game will require decisions between market based approaches and command and control approaches.

Labs for this game include a discovery lab on the difference between strong and weak acids, measuring the pH of rain, and measuring the nitrate and sulfate in rain to determine the source of acidity.

The final outcome of this game should be something similar to the Convention on Long Range Transport Air Pollution now in effect in Europe. If the students do not find a way to address pollution, then they lose the game.

The Acid Rain Game can be used as a 1 week, 2 week, or 3 week RTTP game depending on which parts of the game are actually played. The one week 1984 version deals primarily with sulfur dioxide pollution. The 2 week version covering 1979-84 provides a richer look at the underlying environmental philosophy and ecology. The complete 3 week version adds the issue of catalytic converters, ozone pollution, and leaded gasoline into the discussion. The final section on catalytic converters has also been broken out as a 1 week game in a stand alone fashion. The two chapter length versions have been adapted to play out in a 1 week time frame.

Game materials are available at  

Acid Rain Model

Acid Rain Motion Graph for 3 OECD Cases


The student game book containing all the background material may be reproduced for class use and sold to students at cost. 

Sign up for access to for access to student and instructors materials.   Contact the RTTP staff to gain access to the RTTP Forum where all RTTP materials are posted.

Support for the development of this game was provided by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College. Support for Chapter length game development, assessment and dissimination is provided by the NSF-CCLI program.

Evolution in Kansas 

by David Henderson with Taz Daughtrey

This game is set in 1999 and 2000. Christian Conservatives on the Kansas Board of Education have deleted macroevolution and Big Bang cosmology from the state science curriculum. The game centers on the election of a new Board of Education which must, for legal reasons, revisit the decision. Students will campaigns for office through press conferences, sponsored debates, and are encouraged to involve the larger campus community in the issues. Following the election, the Board meets to resolve the science curriculum issue.

The controversy in Kansas lies on a continuum that begins with the trial of Galileo. Most states in the South and Midwest have struggled with this issue and even New York limits the teaching of evolution. The Kansas controversy is uniquely interesting. It coincided with the controversial presidential election of 2000 in which both candidates took sides on the issue. It was also part of a struggle for control within the Republican Party of Kansas and involved large numbers of outside interests and national attention for the controversy.  

This game raises many questions about the role of religion in American society, the power of religious fundamentalism in the modern world, and the nature of science. Faculty can tailor the course to focus more on issues of civil religion or on modern Cosmology and evolutionary theory. Readings include an except from Darwin’s Origin of Species , Microcosmos by Lynn Margulis and Doran Sagen which presents a modern view of evolution, readings from Hume on natural religion, and a classic essay on civil religion in America.

Labs for this game include building a telescope similar to that of Galileo, observing the moon and planets, learning about observational astronomy, studying physical optics of lenses using ray tracing, an exercise in natural selection, an exercise in allele propagation, and an exercise on radioactive decay. Additional possible exercises include a study of the Hubble Constant using simulation software and the use of ice core and tree ring data in obtaining dates.

The final outcome of this game is a science standards document for use by the state of Kansas.

Interested faculty may download a copy of the student game book and instructors manual at or the Reacting Science web site.  This may be reproduced for class use and sold to students at cost. The instructor files are encrypted and the key can be obtained by emailing david.henderson at All RTTP materials are also available from the Reacting web site.  Contact the Reacting staff and gain access to the RTTP forum where all Reacting materials are posted.


Chapter length Games - 1 week of game play

Challenging the Food Pyramid

by David and Susan Henderson

This chapter length RTTP game involves 2-3 class periods of game play in addition to any background instruction in the basics of nutrition that are needed to support the game. It is intended for use in popular food/nutrition general education science courses and could be used in introductory chemistry and biology courses as well.

The game is set in a Congressional hearing to evaluate the work of the USDA in developing the Food Pyramid in 1991. This document angered various interest groups in agribusiness and the role of special interests versus the basic nutritional science is an important factor in the hearings. Furthermore, the Department of Health and Human Services which includes the FDA and CDC object to the inherent conflicts in the USDA which are reflected in the Pyramid. Students come to see that the Pyramid reflects a combination of science and politics.

Acid Rain In Europe- 1984 The European Response to SO2 pollution

by David and Susan Henderson

This game is a subset of the full length Acid Rain in Europe 1979-89 game and involves the middle section of the long game. The scientific focus is primarily on the effects of sulfur dioxide pollution and efforts to reduce this pollution.


Catalytic Converters and the European Response to NOx pollution 1987

by David and Susan Henderson

This game is a subset of the full length Acid Rain in Europe 1979-89 game and covers the final phase of that game that considers whether to require catalytic converters on cars and to remove lead from gasoline. The scientific content focuses on NOx pollution and the formation of Smog, catalytic converters, and lead poisoning.


Challenging the Food Pyramid

by David and Susan Henderson

This game is designed for courses dealing with nutrition. The game is set in a 1991 congressional hearing to examine the decision of the Department of Agriculture to create, remove, and finally distribute the Eating Right Food Pyramid. Issues in the game include the relationship between nutrition and health and the role of politics and special interests in government pronouncements on nutrition. With Susan Henderson, Quinnipiac University.


Feeding Africa - Starvation or GM Foods

by David Henderson

This game is designed for use in any course covering GM crops and the issues that surround them. The game is set at an international meeting where the US delegation tries to convince the leaders of several African nations to accept GM corn to avert famine. The EU representatives present the case against accepting these donations and the potential risks associated with them.


Climate Change at Copenhagen 2009

by David Henderson

This game is set in the Copenhagen meeting at which national representatives try to reach agreement on steps to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to prevent rapid increases in global temperatures. Students represent countries and are divided in factions to address all of the issues surrounding these discussions. The central focus is the choices that need to be made, the costs of those choices, and who will pay for them.


Chemistry at Karlsrhue- 1860

by David and Susan Henderson

This game is set in the first even international scientific conference on chemistry in Karlsrhue, Germany. The student roles include many people that chemistry students will recognize, including Bunsen, Pasteur, Kekule, and Mendeleev. The meeting was called to discuss whether atoms were real or just a theoretical construct and to try to resolve the uncertainty over the atomic weight of carbon (6 or 12) and oxygen (8 or 16). Mendeleev is said to have gotten the idea for the periodic table on the train ride home from the meeting. Students are given experimental data which they use in calculations to make their arguments. This game is intended for use in the early phases of introductory chemistry courses and can be used in one week of lectures, during 2 recitation sessions, or in a lab session.


Diet and the Killer Diseases - McGovern Hearings, 1977

by David and Susan Henderson

The low fat diet to prevent heart disease gained credibility as a result of the 1977 US Senate hearings chaired by Sen. George McGovern. The recommendations to reduce dietary fat and increase whole grains, fruits, and vegetables were hear by the media and transformed by the food industry into a large scale push for low fat and non-fat foods. The graph of obesity in the US has an inflection point shortly after this hearing as people felt free to eat whatever they wanted as long as it was low fat. It was not until 20 years later that a detailed study of the low fat diet began to question its value. Another decade passed before a serious challenge was mounted to what had become orthodoxy in medicine and the public mind. This game replays the hearings, but includes a more balanced group of experts to give testimony. Students representing the scientific and medical establishment present research findings available at the time and the senators vote on whether to recommend a low fat diet to prevent heart disease or to study the issue further before reaching a conclusion. The game is designed for courses in general science, nutrition, health, etc. It involves critical thinking about evidence.

Other Reacting Science games available through the Barnard web site. These require password access. Contact  to obtain access to the Reacting Faculty Forum

Galileo and the New Cosmology - This game begins in 1616 and closes in the 1630's. During the two phases of the game, Galileo's writings are examined by the Inquisition and decisions are made on whether then can be published and whether Galileo should be punished. The conflict between the Ptolemaic vs Copernican cosmology is the central issue of the game and the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has embraced the Ptolemaic system as an article of faith. The issue of science verses religion is thoroughly debated during the course of this game. Labs allow students to understand optics and telescopes and gain experience with astronomy.

Darwin and the Copley Medal. - This game is set in 1862-4 and involves debates within the Royal Society on whether Darwin should receive the Copley Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in its day. Various issues including the role of women, the philosophy of science, and the validity of Darwin's ideas are debated.


Rationale for RTTP Science for Non-Majors

Science teaching at the K-12 level has received considerable attention at the national level[1]. College science for majors has been similarly well addressed on an ongoing basis by organizations including the AAAS[2], American Chemical Society[3], and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute initiatives. However, the question of what to do for humanities students at the college level has been a contentious issue on many campuses and has received little attention and less consensus. At many colleges and universities the teaching of required science courses to non-majors is treated as a burden by the science departments and is relegated to adjunct faculty. Junior faculty often see it as a distraction from their efforts to obtain tenure and promotion. There are many superior examples of individual faculty who are committed to this endeavor who develop interesting and even nationally acclaimed courses[4]. But in most cases they are unique to the interest of the specific faculty member and are difficult to replicate.

The issue of what science to teach to humanities students can become a contentious issue between division of the academy. Humanities faculty sometimes question why their major must endure courses which seem irrelevant to their futures. Science faculty respond that students need to understand science to be good citizens and to make informed decisions about many aspects of their lives. But the courses offered are often not clearly relevant to these outcomes. The entire conversation between the science and humanities faculties often break down over these issues.

If one examines the choices currently available for college students, they are limited to the following:

1.      Offer only courses targeted for science majors and argue that all college students should be able to pass them.

2.      Offer special “watered down” versions of the basic science courses to separate the non-majors out so they don’t slow down the majors. These courses essentially repeat students’ high school science experience in chemistry, biology, etc. Studies by the NSF have documented the loss of interest in science and engineering which occurs between high school and college. This appears to be due more to the negative experiences students have in high school science courses more than to positive attraction to other fields. Students entering college often tell their advisors that they want to study anything but science and math.  It is unlikely that repeating a course similar to their high school course will make them enthusiastic about science or turn them into adults who are interested in and informed about the many decisions they must make in the personal and political lives which are informed by scientific knowledge.

3.      Develop specially designed applied science course. Courses such as food chemistry, forensic science, drug pharmacology, and the previously cited Biological Roots of Human Behavior”, etc. have a much better chance of capturing student interest and providing useful life long experiences in a narrow subject area. When taught by enthusiastic faculty these courses can be very successful. On the other hand, it is not easy to replicate them.


A second issue in college science teaching is the relative ignorance of the big issues of science and how they relate to public life. This applies to both science majors and non-science majors. Physics students will encounter the strangeness of quantum mechanics and biology students will learn about evolution. None of them will learn about global warming, weather, or plate tectonics. There is no place in the regular college science curriculum where students learn about political, social, and ethical consequences of science. Only Environmental Science majors would encounter these issues in any detail.

RTTP Science addresses these problems by allowing students to confront large issues in science in a rich context which includes the political, philosophical, economic, and historical aspects. Presenting science as conflict is true to the nature of science itself. The lab activities in RTTP science courses also provide students with hands on experience of the process of obtaining scientific evidence. All of the courses are designed to require students to bring evidence to the table as part of their arguments.

Chapter length RTTP games have been developed to make it easier to integrate this powerful pedagogy into regular courses. Book length games are available for those who can build courses around primarily RTTP approaches.

[1] National Science Education Standards, National Research Council Press, 1996. Available at

[2] AAAS Project 2061

[3] The ACS Committee for Professional Training regularly reviews chemistry curricula of colleges and universities and establishes standards for majors courses. Standardized exams are also produces for majors courses at all levels.

[4] E.g. Prof. Timothy Goldsmith of Yale, "The Biological Roots of Human Behavior," referenced in Beyond Biology 101. a report from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, David Jarmul, Ed., available at