The start of a Global Santa Fe policy simulation, called NextGenSim, looks something like this: sleepy 10th and 11th graders saunter into the gymnasium or library, headphones still in, and jokes being thrown to friends. Kids give a skeptical eye to tables spread around the room, covered in materials – nametags, character cards, background packets, and note-taking tools. I am in my element in a room full of students, whether we’re at Santa Fe Prep or Moriarty High School, so I get our morning started with an enthusiastic welcome.
The topic of this year’s simulation is a contentious one, especially here in New Mexico: fracking. Students are presented with a realistic situation (with equal perspectives on both sides) in which a fictional country must decide whether to start drilling for oil and gas, via fracking, within their borders. A large oil company, a competitive and threatening neighboring nation, and many different character perspectives make for a complex scenario. Some students play important government figures, like Regional Governor, Oil Company Executive, or Minister of the Environment. Others play important community members like Water Activist, Union Representative, or Journalist. As characters get to know one another, have town hall meetings, and try to persuade opinion, I am asked hard, and sometimes humorous, questions: “If I’m a journalist, can I spread disinformation?” “What does ‘economic development’ mean? What would that mean for this country?” Partway through the activity, students are given “Insider Info” cards distinct to each character. These may include gossip, news, discoveries, or facts that add even more heat to discussions and decisions. Will water-conscious farmers go on strike? Would the government funnel oil and gas revenue to much-needed social programs, as promised?
By the end of the three hours, sleepy teenagers are now shouting across the room, heated in debate with various onlookers, making deals, shaking hands, and pointing fingers. They are also gaining confidence, deeply listening to one another, and seeking the truth. When the final vote is cast, loud cheers (and boos) arise from the group. The topic of fracking, and oil in general, is contentious with high schoolers; many teenagers know deeply about the causes and consequences of climate change and look inspiringly toward a future free of fossil fuels. As students go out into the world to fight for what they believe in, no matter which side they’re on, a steadfast belief in their values must be met with well-rounded knowledge and understanding of those who think differently from them. As we settle down and debrief, the most common simulation takeaway goes something like this: “I never thought about how complex these decisions are, about how many people and places have affected both ways. I haven’t changed my mind, but I’ve seen a totally different perspective.”