Numbers appear on the screen and Madeline Jovanovich morphs from a senior student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks into the local area manager of the Big Wind salmon fishery.

She reads over the escapement data (fisheries jargon for how many salmon have made it past fishermen and into the river to spawn) and sends it out over the marine radio. Her classmates — acting as commercial, sport, subsistence and personal-use fishermen — read her release and react to the news.


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Jovanovich, from Washington state, spent her summers growing up on a purse seiner in Southeast Alaska and worked in a Bristol Bay cannery before deciding to pursue a degree in fisheries. During her last semester she enrolled in UAF’s new Salmon and Society course, which employs role-playing as a teaching technique.

“The School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences does a good job of getting us to think in different ways,” she said, “but this activity was really unique.”

Ben Meyer, a graduate student in the course, agreed. “We’ve certainly never done something like this before, but knowing Professor Westley it was not surprising at all that he is experimenting with new things,” he said.

Peter Westley is one of four UAF faculty members in the Chancellor’s Innovation in Technology and Elearning program, which encourages instructors to try innovative teaching techniques. One learning objective he wanted to focus on in Salmon and Society was building empathy for the variety of cultural groups in the industry. Fisheries conflicts are often pitted in terms of upstream versus downstream, urban versus rural, residents versus nonresidents and so forth, making role playing a good fit.

Students were assigned a role and a backstory. Meyer, a real-life ecologist, took on the persona of a commercial purse seiner whose blood runs salmon red but is in debt from having to replace the diesel engines on his boat, which threw off last season’s catch.

“Thinking like a commercial fisherman was a challenge,” he said. “This activity really forced me to think about things from a perspective I usually don’t.”

That, according to Westley, is exactly the point. As an instructor he is using role-playing to help students reach a deeper level of understanding that can’t come from readings, lectures or discussion. “Were they willing to suspend their disbelief and go on the ride?”

This portion of the course lasted two weeks. Students, who were located both in and out of Alaska, took on a new role each week and interacted with each other on an online platform. In the future, Westley plans to make the activity into two three-week sessions to allow for more character immersion and for more tension to build. “This is an active learning experience for the students and also myself,” he said.

The most applicable lesson, according to Jovanovich, is a better understanding of how her communication affects work relationships. Playing the role of area manager, she kept her messages formal.

“I wanted to respond with language that the fishermen will relate to and understand, but will also show that I’m intelligent and should be respected,” she said.

When she was role-playing a commercial fisherman, her vocabulary was meant to illustrate her smarts but also “got the point across.” Both experiences will help during her real-life commercial fishing job with the F/V Bravo in Bristol Bay this summer, she said.

Using role-play as a tool to resolve conflict is not a new idea, said Owen Guthrie, a UAF eLearning instructional designer who helped Westley design the activity. “But using resource conflict role-playing in the context of fisheries is damn innovative,” Guthrie said.

UAF eLearning is also supporting a journalism course in which students take on roles at a printing company. The university’s instructional designers, who support course development, expect more instructors to incorporate this teaching technique into both online and face-to-face courses in the coming semesters.