Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Model aeroplanes, computers and stoves: Simulations for facilitating student learning

Cecil A.L. Pearson, Commerce Programme
Colin J. Beasley, Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
A continuing challenge for tertiary educators is how to develop successful and self reliant graduates. There is widespread recognition of the need for students to develop good literacy and research skills, critical thinking and problem solving abilities, and strong interpersonal communication skills as well as independence as learners. However, many university courses employ traditional teaching practices and methodologies that do not foster these skills and abilities, but encourage reliance on the teacher. This workshop will demonstrate how a stimulating learning environment can be facilitated through experiential learning activities such as simulations in which students are encouraged to adopt a broad range of self regulatory learning behaviours. Participants in this workshop will explore a simulation which requires them to develop critical thinking, creativity, and interpersonal skills in a virtual business framework where small origami aeroplanes are manufactured and sold.


The development of successful self reliant life long learners is a continuing challenge for tertiary educators and administrators (Candy, Crebert and O'Leary, 1994; Sobral, 1997). In spite of the awareness of the need for developing good communication skills, critical thinking skills and independence in learners, many university courses adopt conventional pedagogical methods, which encourage surface learning approaches and reliance on the teacher (Biggs, 1996; Casey, Gentile and Bigger, 1997). There is, however, a growing body of evidence about teaching initiatives that create student centred learning contexts that are designed to bring about improvements in approaches to learning (Hambleton, Foster and Richardson, 1998; Mathews and Barrington, 1998; November, 1997). Some of these programmes employ computer technology and others are relatively expensive in time and facilities. However, the experiential learning innovation described in this paper, which is based on a simulation described by Seagon and Rose (1996), can be conducted in any normal class room and the most exotic apparatus is a piece of origami paper. This simulation, utilising origami paper, has been successfully used for the past two years with second year management students. The authors have demonstrated (Beasley and Pearson, 1998; Pearson and Beasley, 1998) that this simulation enables students to develop greater awareness of themselves as learners and encourages them to adopt a broad range of self-regulatory learning behaviours.

Simulation overview

An experiential simulation has three main stages. The first stage is the introduction when the roles of the class members are set, the objectives of the simulation are clarified and the required materials are distributed. This phase is of relative short duration (about 20 minutes), but is sufficient for participants to read a handout which describes the important features of the simulation, to read their role descriptions, attach their role name tags, and establish their position in the simulation relative to the other class members.

The second stage of an experiential simulation is the activity session. This part of the simulation is designed to generate issues and problems about the core concepts of the course being taught. As participants undertake tasks in their role position in the simulation, they will be required to exercise a range of conceptual, cognitive, technical and social skills. This second stage in the present simulation, which is conducted over twenty 'weeks' each of about three minutes, has a duration of about one half of the total simulation time.

The reflection stage is the third and most important phase of the simulation. During the activity session the participants will be required to make decisions, interact with the other members, and be exposed to a wide variety of experiences. Usually, the activity session is undertaken at a frenetic pace as role incumbents scramble to complete tasks, resolve conflicts, attempt to influence others and complete a diversity of transactions. Hence, members need a review stage to reflect upon and appraise their experience and learning in terms of independence, interdependence, leadership, self determination as well as cognitive and linguistic competence with the subject matter of the simulation. This reflection stage needs to be about half the duration of the activity stage. The reflection stage is an open forum when all members can share their experiences and understanding, and evaluate these against their expectations and achievements.

Central to the simulation described in this paper is an organisation that manufactures a product. In this simulation the organisation manufactures an origami aeroplane, and specifically, a boomerang aeroplane as it returns to the sender when thrown. How well this outcome is achieved will to a large extent depend on the relationships between the manufacturing organisation and four other sub units.

The manufacturing company and the inter-related organisational units is shown in Figure 1. At the centre of Figure 1 is a large circle that represents the manufacturing company - Aeroflyte Industries. The four inter-related units are the personnel of the organisation, an international buyer, a company that sells the material (origami paper) used to construct the aeroplane, and a bank which has loaned Aeroflyte Industries $1 million, and which must be repaid. Thus, the survival of Aeroflyte Industries depends on how well it is able to manufacture and sell aeroplanes. The overall success of the simulation will be measured by the quality of the interactions between the manufacturing organisation and the four sub units of Figure 1.

Figure 1


At the commencement of a simulation every class member is given a four page typed handout. Class members are given about 10 minutes to read this document which has two main parts. First, there is a brief description of a company with details of the organisational structure. This includes the managerial positions and the shop floor employees, the monthly salary of each company member, and information of the company's $1 million loan from the bank to manufacture a particular product (e.g., aeroplanes, stoves or computers). The monthly loan repayment details (plus rent/power) are provided, plus information about wages to be paid to staff, some basic quality details about the product being manufactured (e.g., the aeroplane must return to the thrower, the stove door must open, or the monitor must swivel on the computer, respectively), the contract selling price to buyers, how to obtain materials and the relevant work conditions of all parties. The second part of the handout provides important details about the microcosm of organisations that interact with the company.

In the aeroplane simulation there are four additional fundamental elements of the network shown as Figure 1. Firstly, there is a bank. This requires at least one class member to record the financial details of the monthly debt repayments as well as the detailed operating costs, and to pursue the company if it defaults. Secondly, there is an international buyer who purchases the company products, and issues cheques either to the value of the contract price or negotiates a fee according to product quality. Thirdly, there is a supplier of materials, which are sold to the company two weeks after payment by cheque, and accounted for by the budgeted operations of the supplying corporation (ABC materials). Lastly, there is a time keeper who times each working week at three minutes with a weekend of a half a minute. The progress of the simulation is shown by the time keeper by use of an overhead projector, and by calling out the status of the week. Not only are members expected to vacate the worksite at weekends, but they have to redeem their monthly pay cheques at the bank during the appropriate week of remuneration.

After reading the handout the workshop leader invites class members to choose a role. As the members select a role they are given a typed role description, which can be as much as one and one half pages or as little as five lines. For example, the managing director has the longest job description while a shop floor employee or the time keeper has the shortest job description. Names tags are used to help participants identify the respective roles of members. After all the roles have been assigned, a brief class discussion (no more than five minutes) is held to clarify the connections of the elements of the network of organisations. All class members are asked to enact their roles as defined, and the simulation begins.

During the assigning of the role descriptions, the necessary apparatus is also allocated. For instance, the accounting manager is given a number of blank company cheque forms, and the product buyer is also given documentation about product specification, the initial set price and cheque forms for paying the agreed price on delivery of the product. The banker is given paper, pen and a bank stamp. The works manager is provided with plans for the product to be manufactured (as well as being able to view the completed item). The usual strategy is for the tutor to give the personnel manager a demonstration of how to make the aeroplane. The personnel manager then has to provide staff training during the simulation. If the personnel manager has difficulty in fulfilling this role, then the tutor will demonstrate the construction procedure directly to the shop floor employees. The supplier is issued with product kits (for aeroplanes, 15cm x 15cm light weight origami paper; for stoves, a half an A4 sheet of 210gm hardboard, a piece of perspex for the viewing door and four 1cm adhesive coloured discs for the hot plates; for computers a full A4 sheet of 210gm hardboard, a black piece of board for the screen, and thread for the electric conduits). The time keeper has an overhead transparency displaying the 16 weeks, the start and finish time of the working period as well as the weekend start and finish. This overhead is marked and kept visible to the class throughout the simulation.

The workshop tutor observes, but may also intervene if necessary. To provide an additional element of complexity the tutor can subtly remove a participant by issuing a medical form. These forms contain one of the following two statements: "You are sick - take a week off" or "You have an accident - take a week off". As the form is validated by the signature of a medical practitioner it legitimises the company employee's action to vacate the worksite after presenting the form to his/her superior or the personnel manager.

The crucial segment of the simulation is the review session. On completion of "16 weeks" a period of about 30 minutes is devoted to focussing on the reflections of the participants on what they have learnt from the exercise. Specifically, our interest is on whether there are indications that deep learning and critical thinking have been stimulated. Deep learning occurs when the learning experience leads to an understanding of the underlying principles and concepts involved and is related to previous knowledge and personal experience, whereas surface learning is limited to superficial understanding, memorisation and rote learning of facts. Critical thinking, on the other hand, is likely to at least begin in a review session when students have time to reflect, listen and ask questions. These review sessions are vital and stimulating for students as well as the tutor.


An important feature of simulations is the rich diversity of participant interactions and the opportunity they give for students to learn more. Although it has been claimed (Senge, 1990) that particular simulations (e.g., the Brewery Activity) always demonstrate similar fundamental concepts, workshop leaders must be alert to the variety and intensity of participant behaviours. Some participants become so engrossed in their roles that they mimic dramas of real life and such volatile interpersonal dynamics have to be circumvented or controlled. While it might be anticipated that the switch to a relatively fast changing learning environment will alter dependency and aggression dynamics for the participants, their specific actions cannot be forecast. This is the powerful benefit of simulations. The uniqueness of each session is that it provides but a small example of countless possible situations, and hence interest and learning opportunities are boundless.

Review sessions consistently appear to have benefited the students and to have been enlightening to the tutors. Of particular value have been the interaction/negotiating elements for those students who have previously been less exposed to the operational dynamics of the workplace. The review sessions demonstrate that the class participants experience a great variety of opportunities, challenges and information about competencies vital for performance. For instance, although total quality management is a course topic, few people fully realise the meaning of "building in quality" until the simulation was conducted. The failure of "managers" to understand this vital concept had serious consequences for the company. Aeroplanes that would not fly correctly, stoves of various dimensions, and computers of odd shapes were initially of some concern to marketers because the buyers were not prepared to pay full price for defective products. Soon engineering staff and others of even higher organisational positions became embroiled in trying to resolve the problems.

Many of the "managers" made unjustified assumptions about their own roles and abilities as well as the capacities of others. Often these managers tried to do the work themselves, yet they could recite text book knowledge that "management is a process of getting others to do the tasks". Frequently, people did things without considering the consequences, yet the participants were aware of strategy and goal setting principles, but obviously these concepts had not been fully understood. All of the managerial members better appreciated at the close of the simulation what Mintzberg meant when he wrote "managers work at an unrelenting pace".

Simulations have some specific resource requirements. Most important is time, as many simulations require about two hours in which to move adequately through the three key stages: introduction, operation and review. Next is the number of participants. A reasonably pragmatic (and economic) class size is about 30 people as this number provides the potential for creating more complex self learning situations than smaller classes allow. As the participants are involved in a great number of interactions (short and long), a reasonably large room size (say for 50 people) is required for comfort and flexibility. It then follows that a carpeted floor to acoustically soften noise is desirable. In addition, moveable small tables and chairs are essential as traditional furniture arrangements are seldom employed. Simulations are best employed once students have developed working relationships with other class members and a certain "critical mass" of course content material has been introduced. Hence, simulations are best suited to the latter part of a course programme.

Simulations provide a stimulating context for improving learning skills. Participants cannot remain passive as they are drawn into activity and interaction by others who are reliant on the maintenance of dependency networks to complete task roles. Simulations provide learning forums that are more enlightening and effective than most narrowly focused traditional more passive learning situations. Simulations provide an interactive and engaging experiential learning context which promotes independence and metacognitive processes such as self monitoring and reflection of learning.


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Please cite as: Pearson, C. A. L. and Beasley, C. J. (1999). Model aeroplanes, computers and stoves: Simulations for facilitating student learning. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 317-321. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/pearson-c2.html

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