It’s not often that college students are asked to play games in class. But if you stop by the UNM Honors College, you’ll see that traditional teaching is taking a backseat to creativity. The College’s Diplomacy Lab is using gamification strategies, as teaching tools, to leverage critical thinking to solve complex issues related to the epidemic of world hunger.

The Diplomacy Lab is a UNM pilot program in partnership with the U.S. Department of State (DOS). The initiative utilizes expertise at universities to help solve complex global problems. Under the guidance of cross-disciplinary faculty teams and DOS officials, students are being challenged to create integrative diplomatic solutions that address real-world problems.

“The idea behind the Diplomacy Lab project is that our students will learn about policy making and our students will contribute to policy making,” said Professor and lead faculty on the project Sarita Cargas. “The government officials affiliated with the Lab want thinkers outside of Washington. They want fresh ideas from around the country—what are things we haven’t thought of and what can students bring to the table. “ 

In a multidisciplinary approach, Honors College faculty have partner together under the Diplomacy Lab umbrella to create an educational, fun interactive game that addresses global hunger and food production. Students first collect data on arable land, population, climate, areas where hunger is occurring and predictions on where it will increase, to show implications of changes on global food supply.

Cargas teaches Globalization and Human Rights in Honors College to freshman and sophomores. After students gain an understanding of the history of globalization and how it benefits or harms human rights, she has them analyze how the two interact in global food security.

“Food and food distribution became a big case study in my class,” Cargas said. “They’re outcomes of the globalization phenomenon in the sense that food is grown in one place and sold in another, and involves multinational companies and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and debates. We got into the GMO debate because, while it’s controversial, it may contribute to food security across the globe. Food security is a big issue in human rights. We have many hungry people on the planet.”

World Hunger
Diplomacy Lab students work on critrical issues affecting world hunger. By 2050, the world will need to support a 70 percent increase in food consumption, most likely with less land to harvest food. 

Cargas’ class examines the costs and benefits of growing conventional, organic and biotech crops for U.S. farmers and for third world exports. They acquired data from some of the largest food oriented organizations in the world including the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The students discovered that if we follow certain kinds of food policy, for example only growing organic foods, we can’t export very much because we’ve grown less,” Cargas said. “If we follow other food policies, such as using conventional farming, we can grow more and export more. Europe tries to have a light environmental footprint but they import conventionally grown, fertilized and GMO soy from Brazil grown on land the size of Germany. They merely export some negative environmental impacts. Students learn that the problems and solutions are complex. Most importantly, they are also learning about solutions that can end world hunger.”

After the students have analyzed the issues and gathered valuable data, the proverbial lab baton is passed to Professor Jason Moore. His Big Data class is focused on targeted analysis of the data Cargas’ class has provided them.

“At the core of what we are doing in my class is multivariate statistical modeling,” says Moore. “At the beginning of the class it’s teaching the students how to do a very complicated statistical technique. At the end of the class it’s all about asking students to use the tools at hand. Using the information to make informed decisions.”

"My work for the Diplomacy Lab and Wonk Tank projects has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career.” —Elisabeth Thomas

With the big data and formulas in hand, students work with Professor Chris Holden to create “Games for Change.”

Holden explains, “The nominal purpose of the game is not entertainment or to represent the data for other scientists, but instead to reflexively accomplish the learning they have just been through, to create something to teach others about the issue. The approaches and perspectives from the first course take on new meaning and become fodder for the eventual design as much as the data model. Students’ learning will deepen as they see their past work again, this time as a model for how they might hope to teach someone new to the issue.”

“Studies have shown that working on real world problems contributes to the development of critical thinking skills,” says Cargas. “Students are motivated to do higher order thinking because they want to be part of solutions. Our Diplomacy Lab is wonderful opportunity for UNM faculty and staff to help solve critical problems and engage with government experts.”

Government experts are one of the many benefits to working on a Diplomacy Lab project assigned by the U.S. Department of State. Cargas’ class has had multiple visits from State Department representatives who expose students to the work of the DOS and introduce students to relevant experts throughout the government by email or phone.  

Cargas speaks highly of the experts’ partnership with UNM. “Working with the experts from the State Department has great benefits. The students get direction—how to sharpen their questions, where to look for data, where certain work is being done in the U.S. government. My class now has access to 18 experts. We have this huge pool of expertise from the government at our finger tips.”

Wonk Tank Competition
 Professor Cargas and Honors College students Juliet Lasache, Elisabeth Thomas and Fabian Lopez. Thomas was one of three national finalists for the DOS contest called the Wonk Tank for her proposed policy to address world hunger by providing women in the developing world with more technology, for example, an easy to fix basic tractor.

The students have also had the opportunity to take the information they have collected and present their findings and solutions to a panel as part of the Wonk Tank competition that took place at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. this past March during the annual Global Partnerships Week.

“It was very motivating to see how our long hours of research paid off as we developed our policies and addressed problems surrounding world hunger,” said UNM participant and competition finalist Elisabeth Thomas. “This project gave me the structure to address an important problem coupled with the freedom to creatively develop my own solutions. I know that in my future as a chemical engineer, the creative problem solving skills I have developed through this project will be incredibly important. The opportunity to take our work and present it to professionals at the U.S. State Department was an unbelievable way to see the payoff of our work and investigate our next steps for continuing the project. My work for the Diplomacy Lab and Wonk Tank projects has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career.”

The Diplomacy Lab project is expected to continue for many years in the Honors College and will hopefully be an ongoing support for the U.S. government as it works in partnership with other countries to end world hunger.

“We simply can’t make the whole world go organic as nice as that sounds,” added Cargas. “We need a more practicable solution to support the needed 70 percent increase in food by 2050, with less land. It’s possible and our students are participating in something real—with great benefits to humanity.”