A Multimedia Simulation Teaches EPA Coordinators to Manage Community Relations
For community coordinators at the Environmental Protection Agency, managing community relations can be as hazardous as the environmental dangers that the agency faces. Miscommunication can have disastrous results. To help coordinators practice essential skills for the job, Socratic Arts developed a self-contained three-part simulation called Community Partnering for Environmental Results. The simulation puts the participants into the role of community coordinator, and presents them with a set of challenges that mirror real life. Within the simulation participants field calls, run meetings, and manage community relations for various projects, working with stakeholders to build consensus on a course of action for a set of issues.
The program included many innovative design features:
- Simulated tasks based on performance objectives that don’t lend themselves easily to a self-contained learning environment, e.g., building consensus within a community, leading a meeting
- Feedback and resources where there are no right or wrong answers to the decisions posed to participants (because there aren’t on the job, either)
- A "Day in the life" experience to characterize an amorphous job, e.g., impromptu meetings with stakeholders, rowdy community town hall-type meetings
The simulation story: Evans Bay is a community at a boiling point over the cleanup of a hazardous waste site within its borders. At the program’s open, participants find themselves "sitting in their office" in Evans Bay, ready for their first day on the job. To simulate this, we show the learner a video from their simulated point of view, displaying their desktop, phone, office and office door beyond. The phone on "their desk" rings and they are prompted to answer. It is a constituent wanting help acquiring a gas station. The participant must decide how to respond, by selecting from a menu of potential responses. At this and all other decision points, the learner can view the pros and cons of different courses of action, and see video stories from real practitioners about their actions in similar situations (and consequences). They then receive feedback in the form of the characters’ reaction to their response (and the reactions are not always pleasant). This is a memorable, effective way of letting participants know how their responses might be received in the real world, and helps them understand that there is no perfect response, just tradeoffs and consequences. Additional decision points present themselves: how to handle an impromptu request from a stakeholder, what to ask during a conversation with a constituent, etc.
Later in the simulation, the participants "lead a community meeting", first by selecting a lead in, and then responding to stakeholder comments, and seeing, via video, attendees’ responses. The participants’ experience at the meeting can sometimes be discomforting. Again the video plays from the student’s point of view, rows of meeting attendees, some of whom are scowling before the meeting even starts. The participants’ responses can sometimes elicit outbursts from the crowd, just as they would in the real world.
After the meeting, participants must decide whether to provide a recommendation for the mayor of Evans Bay on how to remove waste, or to first gather more input from stakeholders. The more input the participants gather, the more nuanced and informed their report, just as in the real world. The participants receive feedback on their report via calls from the mayor, e.g., "I got your report – you’ve got to go back to the drawing table", or "Thanks for your report, I’ve printed copies for the stakeholders – let’s meet to discuss your ideas." Through these varied, often intense interactions, via feedback from characters within the stories, and support from clips of real practitioners telling real world stories, the learners get a sense of how to wade through the very murky, politically charged waters they will be navigating on the job.
After seven years, the EPA continues to use the course to train incoming community coordinators.
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