||GOVT299: Directed Study on National Security Crisis Simulation
In this course, Political Science faculty Brian Cook and Kristen Williams provide students with a hands-on way to understand the process of national security decision making.
Interview with Professors Brian Cook and Kristen Williams
Political Science faculty Brian Cook and Kristen Williams have been experimenting with including national security crisis simulations in several of their courses. During spring 2007 they offered a course that was a semester-long simulation. In a recent interview, summarized below, they discussed the goals and structure of the course.
What was the genesis of this semester-long course?
Brian: About five years ago I was teaching my course on the American Presidency, in which I introduced students to White House organization and the interaction of the president with other parts of the government. I thought that one approach might involve active engagement, whereby students could assume roles and interact.
Within the course I created a mini-simulation that lasted a day around a terrorist-related scenario, and students had only about two weeks to prepare their roles. Since Kristen is an international relations specialist, I invited her to be an observer and critic of how the students did. That was the beginning of our collaboration around classroom simulations.
I hit upon the idea that we ought to have something similar to a Model United Nations program, but involving decision making around a national security issue. With some money from the Harrington Public Affairs fund, an endowment within the government department, we developed a pilot simulation that we ran as an add-on to my American Presidency course and Kristen's National Security Policy course.
We presented the results of our pilot simulation at an American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning Conference in February 2006, and there we met a dean from England's University of Northampton, who was doing simulations using historical cases. We ended up developing a joint simulation with a team from his university, led by professors Jon Gorry and Glyn Daly. They and several of their students came to Worcester, and together we ran the crisis portion of the simulation over 48 hours in March of this year.
What were your goals for this course?
Kristen: We had a set of objectives which we listed in the syllabus. We wanted students to learn about governmental decision making, as well as the constraints surrounding decision making in times of crisis and under time constraints.
Brian: Also, the structure of national security decision making. And by including a British team, we were able to introduce a comparative politics dimension as well.
Are there other colleges/universities in the U.S. using this type of simulation?
Kristen: Our graduate student assistant for our pilot design, Sandy McEvoy, had the task of reviewing simulation literature and what other schools were doing in that regard. There wasn't really very much out there that took place over this length of time and with a hypothetical crisis, as opposed to reliving something like the Cuban missile crisis.
How did you get the students started?
Kristen: We had a meeting during fall semester 2006 for interested students. Those who eventually registered for the spring course were notified by email about the meeting place and time for the first class. There they were given a syllabus and a preference ordering sheet for choosing the agency they would become a part of, which included the CIA, State Department, Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, etc.
Once the agency assignments were made, it was up to the students to contact each other, decide who was going to be the head of each agency, and schedule additional meetings. Then, by February 15, all the agencies had to come up with their top four national security threats and post position papers on the course Blackboard site. The presidential group read them all and staged a presidential "summit." Each agency had 5-10 minutes to present their top four security threats and answer questions from the president. From that point until the crisis portion of the simulation, Brian and I were sending them intelligence chatter, and they had to start thinking on their feet. We could watch the interaction going on within each group via the Blackboard course page.
Can you explain how that worked?
Brian: We created a section of the Blackboard course web site for each agency. On Blackboard, each agency had exclusive access to a discussion board where its members could post files and a chat room where they could exchange information. Kristen and I disseminated intelligence chatter by posting it on one agency's page but not on another's, and we could see how the lines and hierarchies of communication developed. We could see how well they prepared, how in depth they were playing their roles, and how well they were paying attention.
Were there assigned readings for this course, or did students themselves need to do research?
Kristen: Both. Our government-major research assistant, Brian Burns '07, had put together a literature review of crisis decision making, especially relating to the Cuban missile crisis. From these readings students could get a sense of what a real world crisis looked like and how decision making occurred. They were also expected to research their own roles, and other roles if they chose.
Brian: Pete Stein '07, a double major in government and computer science, also prepared some material on various agencies and whatever literature there was on decision making in those agencies, which wasn't much. So the students were on their own to research in more depth how the different agencies behaved, and to try to represent that as best they could. We explained that we did not want them to play the current incumbent in the role, but to play themselves in the role that they had taken on. They need to be shaped by the forces at work within and outside the agency for the role that they were playing. Students had to be self starters, and those who did the best preparation and were most engaged probably got the most enjoyment and learning out of the experience.
What additional sources did they access for information?
Brian: Some students were posting relevant papers on Blackboard that they had written previously. There was also quite a bit of internet-based research. We, of course, didn't vet that, so it was up to them to determine if it was legitimate. We had pretty high expectations, so they had to be very careful about the quality of the material that they were selecting.
It was quite impressive to me how quickly they were able to research relations with various countries in order to push the diplomatic angle of crisis resolution. They had to triangulate a lot of additional information to be well prepared.
Describe the 48 hour crisis portion of the simulation itself.
Kristen: We developed a script ahead of time, in which we designated certain times of the day that information would go out to various agencies.
Brian: But the script was dynamic, because events often outstripped what we anticipated would happen. We had to devise responses to some of the actions the students had taken, their requests for more intelligence and their responses to intelligence that we had released. We wanted the students to feel that they were completely engaged in a real crisis and that they had to respond to actions other actors took.
Kristen: It was remarkable how several of the agency groups had organized themselves, such that somebody was on call at every single hour of the 48 hours that we ran the simulation. The CIA group even posted their schedule on Blackboard. They were very well prepared
What was the physical and technological set up during that 48 hour period?
Brian: We had a conference room set up as the White House situation room where the president, his staff, and agency directors would meet on a periodic basis to discuss what to do in response to the crisis. There was a parallel situation room for the U.K. team. Since their team consisted of only six students, each representing a British agency, they were all in that room for the entire simulation. We had a few other rooms where agency teams could meet for as long as the rooms were available.
We were trying somewhat to keep the British and American teams separate, as they would have been in a real security crisis, but they overwhelmed those boundaries pretty quickly. I think for the American students one of the most rewarding parts of the experience was their interaction with members of the U.K. team--seeing how they thought and saw things differently, how they had to respond given the politics within the U.K. government, and reflect and relay that back to the American team.
What was their primary medium of communication during the simulation, other than face to face?
Brian: Email, cell phone, Blackboard and videoconferencing.
Kristen: We made it clear that any communication coming from us was coming through the Blackboard site. So what they did then on their own was up to them. We asked them to cc us on any internal email agency communication. So, in addition to webcam audio and visual, we had three sets of data: emails, postings on the discussion boards and chat room archives. So we had quite a bit of data to review in order to assess what they did and how they did it, and to help refine the design of future simulations.
Another way we communicated unfolding events was via a mock Middle-East cable news web site, designed by Pete Stein.
Brian: My glorious vision is that we're training people who are actually going to be able to move into decision making positions at a national or international level. In this simulation, we wanted them to have to deal with real people and the quirks and foibles of how those people behave.
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