Experiential Learning in AP Human Geography: Simulating the Syrian Refugee Crisis on a High Ropes Course

Fall 2018

By Craig Angus

Engaging students in active learning that naturally leads to critical thinking and reflection about complex issues does not usually happen when you choose to lecture. Last fall, when I was teaching about migration in AP Human Geography class, my students were engaged in a conversation about forced migration and refugees from Syria. I asked those students who argued that Syrian refugees were not forced to migrate to “try to put yourself in their place and then reconsider your answer.” We watched a news report explaining the Syrian crisis. I observed that there was not much critical thinking or reflection on the part of my students as they wrestled with the subject. I was not getting the kind of emotional reaction I was looking for. How could I reach more students and summon an empathic response to this grave and tragic situation?
I had spent time on a high ropes course and recalled the sense of accomplishment I felt from confronting danger and risk and overcoming my fears. Could the high ropes course help my students to emotionally engage themselves with the plight of Syrian refugees? Could the physical demands of the high ropes course springboard students’ minds into the study of migration? I had been contemplating ways to integrate the ropes course into my teaching since the school had built one the previous year. Our mission statement and vision at Dawson School urge students to “achieve excellence of mind, body, and character” and “achieve their individual potential, savor life, and meet the challenges of the world.” The ropes course could help them accomplish this while also instilling Dawson’s virtues: compassion and the ability to understand the challenges and suffering of others.
When my class next met, I shared my idea of creating the simulation on the course with them. Some of the kids were eager to get on the course and show off their agility and strength; others felt this might be a way to empathize with refugees; some did not want to get involved in such a “dangerous” thing. But I believed that I could build a physical activity that would serve as a metaphor for the journey of a Syrian refugee and the choices he or she faced. There is a parallel between this ropes course and life as a refugee—in neither scenario does one have the luxury of relaxing while making decisions. In both cases, a person needs to be in the moment and to think on his or her feet. A Syrian fleeing violence can’t consult a Yelp review to verify the integrity of the middlemen he or she faces, and decisions have to be made with little information, not unlike what one does on a ropes course. This was the philosophic bridge between being a refugee and participating in my simulation.
As part of my research, I found stories both about refugees who had succeeded in traveling from Syria to America and about those who did not make it. This allowed me to collect destinations, both end term and intermediary. It also allowed me to see the pitfalls encountered and to build those events and places into the activity. My colleague Chris Schuhmann, the ropes course manager, introduced uncertainty and unpredictability into the activity through the use of dice, which would lead players toward different scenarios.
Not all refugees migrate with the same knowledge, courage, resources, and ability. As in the plight of an international refugee, ability and courage are required of one who wants to climb 40 feet into the air and traverse a high ropes course. Leaving one’s country, for any reason, requires bravery. Some students struggled because they were afraid of falling or failing in front of their peers, but most participated in the simulation. However, others chose to stay on the ground. This is not unlike the decision a would-be refugee makes when he or she decides to remain at home.
Knowledge and street smarts play a role in the lives of refugees and those on a ropes course simulation. At the onset of the activity, each student was given the same pile of foreign currency, but they were not provided with conversion rates. Some knew that developed countries have currency with a high value on the international currency market, while other countries have less valuable currency. This knowledge enabled these participants to negotiate favorable prices for bribes and fees and to purchase discounted dice rolls from other players; this also contributed to their sense of well-being. A favorable outcome of the simulation was to end up in Denver (near our school) with a little money in your pocket and a job. Another way to succeed was to finish the game with the most money. Students became creative, making up the rules as they progressed through the course. Faculty participants served as border guards and spotters whom students bribed to disregard bad rolls.
Students were asked to contemplate the following questions: Why do refugees choose to leave their countries? What awaits those who succeed in arriving in a new country? What is at risk for refugees? Would this journey be worth the risks? What might be the things that could happen to cut short a refugee’s attempt to flee? How might a refugee encounter life-threatening situations or even die? What could happen to you if you fail?
Some students were visibly nervous about the ropes course, some terrified, some cocky and eager. As we embarked on the simulation, I sensed that my students were much closer to becoming empathic toward the plight of a refugee than when they were watching a video or listening to a lecture in the classroom.
The Syrian civil war is the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. It is chaotic, unpredictable, and exacerbated by powerful nations not located in the region. With this in mind, I unveiled the scenario each student would be facing as a participant. As the class looked up at the platforms of the ropes course, I asked them to imagine that they were citizens of Syria who had to decide whether to stay or to flee their homes. I then asked the class: “Based on what you know about what is happening in Syria, will you increase your chances of survival by staying or leaving?” I told them, “You and your family are about to embark on a six-part journey that will take you out of Syria, over land to Turkey, across the Balkan Peninsula, to Munich, Germany, by train to Calais, France, then on to Canada, Philadelphia, and Denver, where a relative is living.” I told them that the journey would be long, arduous, and dangerous and that it was likely that some would not make it.
First and foremost, students were told that they would be safe while engaging in the activity as long as they followed all the safety rules. We stressed that it was imperative that they follow the rules! Chris Schuhmann discussed how belaying worked and stated the other ground rules for the course.
I labeled the stations on the course so that each number corresponded with a geographic location listed below on the legend. Course stations were labeled Aleppo, Syria (starting point), Istanbul, Munich, Calais, Halifax, Philadelphia, and Denver. Each of the stations came with six possible outcomes. The outcome a student received, which was determined by a roll of the die, sent him or her on to the next move.
The activity took place during one 90-minute block class. Students who were terrified of the course were allowed to opt out, but few did; all chose to confront their fears in one way or another. Most students took risks, gambled on opportunities, and progressed far along the course. Others were aware enough to recognize that intervening opportunities, such as landing in Munich, Germany, and finding a job, might be better than risking the journey to America.
On reflection, most of the students felt that this activity enhanced their ability to empathize with Syrian refugees. They experienced risks firsthand by putting themselves in harm’s way. They also shared an experience with their peers who were witnesses to the fear and uncertainty involved in a hard journey with an uncertain outcome. After the simulation, I asked each student to do a little research and see what conditions were like for Syrian refugees who ended up where they did. Some were surprised at what they found.
Grania (all the students’ names have been changed), a student who participated in the simulation, expressed it this way:
My experience on the ropes course helped me understand the true struggles a refugee experiences. Although I did not have as much to lose as most refugees do, I saw how much of a migration really depends on luck. As much as this experience on the ropes course helped us understand the struggles, it can never really come close to mirroring the experience of a refugee.

While on the ropes course, she had to choose between saving money or giving Mave (a fellow refugee) half of her money after Mave had dropped the dice and was fined. Grania had to decide what was more important: saving the money in case she needed it later on the course or helping Mave make it through by giving it to her. She chose to help her friend. Said Grania, “I think the fear of failing is similar to the fear a refugee would experience although unfortunately they have a lot more to lose.” In the end, Grania was disappointed that she ended up coming down from the ropes course without finishing the entire route. 
Kieffer, a 10th-grader, had a very different experience. According to Kieffer,
Using the ropes course as an example of refugee migration made me realize that the path refugees take to be safe is more of a labyrinth. With so many possible setbacks, I observed that refugees have a very hard task of getting to safety while under constant hostile conditions.

Unlike Grania, Kieffer avoided the rope course journey. He was terrified of heights, but he had seen an opportunity to participate without leaving the ground. Kieffer had a strong rudimentary knowledge of currency exchange rates and was able to make a small fortune without ever leaving Syria. He became a money changer, selling his rolls, trading currency, and bribing border guards for other students. He was able to make and seize opportunities where most players thought none existed. He explained:
I decided not to go up on the ropes course but decided to go with a more low-risk high-reward strategy. I traded “cash” for “goods” and vice versa, which landed me a large sum of profit. The risk of staying home in Syria while a war is going on is an extreme risk, and I took a smaller risk by bartering with people fleeing the country. Because I decided to trade currencies and items below the ropes course, I had to calculate the exchange rates of certain currencies to maximize profits. Sometimes, refugees need to pay their way out of situations, and I was able to do that. … After trading currencies on the ground, I made enough money to migrate to Europe without difficulties.

Kieffer eventually “settled” in Europe.
Susan described another kind of experience:  
[My] experience on the ropes course simulation was short; after reaching the first checkpoint … the harness I was wearing constricted me, and the dice rolled off the platform. This represented my death, and therefore I could not continue my journey. This made me feel extremely empathic for refugees. I felt that dying so early on in the process was unfair and I should get a second chance, but upon further reflection, I came to realize that life as a refugee is extremely unfair and for many, there are no second chances.

She said that being 40 feet off the ground on a narrow platform made her feel fear and discomfort. She equated the risk she felt on the ropes course to the “danger felt by refugees fleeing Syria.” She also said that the danger limited her decision-making process in that she “had very slim opinions of what I could do next.” This forced her to take steps in her journey that she would have otherwise not taken. “The danger of the situation made me scared and apprehensive, but with such limited possibilities, there was little I could do about the way I felt.” Susan appreciated that her reward for making it through the ropes course would have been to find a hypothetical “refuge,” but she understood that those actually seeking a new life in another country had much higher stakes. She explained that “the fear I felt on the ropes course was mostly about my safety. This is a fear that I can only imagine; refugees feel this fear to an extremely high degree.” Her biggest surprise was “dying” in such an abrupt way. She had imagined that at worst she would be sent back to Syria partway through the journey, but dropping her dice off the platform ended her journey almost before it began. This opened her eyes to the very real possibility of abrupt death for a refugee.
Susan’s friend Kate said, “The risks that we were faced with on the ropes course affected my decision-making process, because I became a lot more careful and didn’t make decisions without thinking about the potential consequences.”
Our day on the ropes allowed for a personalized experience in an authentic learning environment. Experiential education is part of my pedagogy, which embraces student-centered events that provide clear evidence that students have acquired a deeper understanding of class content through activity. Students had to take risks and, in doing so, experienced authentic decision-making, which presented the rewards that come with success and the risks and disappointment that come with failure. It was indeed a memorable day for the class.
Craig Angus

Craig Angus (cangus@dawsonschool.org) has been a teacher for 35 years with 33 in an independent school. He is the chair of the Social Studies Department at the Dawson School in Lafayette, Colorado, where he teaches AP Human Geography, Modern World History, and Woodworking.