U-M PolicyMaker startup builds complex policy simulations

October 17, 2017
Written By:
Greta Guest
Screenshot of the PolicyMaker platform.

Screenshot of the PolicyMaker platform.

ANN ARBOR—Elisabeth Gerber, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, has used role-playing simulations for the past dozen years to help teach students how policies are developed.

And each year, as the simulations became more complex with more players and information, her Excel spreadsheet method was pushed beyond the breaking point.

So, with help from the Digital Innovation Greenhouse within U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation, she developed PolicyMaker, a new platform that allows her to customize role-playing simulations.

“Simulations get people’s attention,” Gerber said. “They’re fun and interesting. They teach students more in-depth the content we’re trying to share about how policies get made.”

Gerber is part of U-M’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem and will display PolicyMaker at the 17th annual Celebrate Invention event 3-6 p.m. Wednesday at the Michigan League Ballroom. The annual event sponsored by U-M Tech Transfer highlights the 444 inventions reported by researchers in FY2017.

She wants to help other instructors put simulations to use in their classrooms as well because of how it engages students and enhances learning.

Elisabeth Gerber.

Elisabeth Gerber

“Even more important for me are the kinds of soft skills you learn when you do a simulation,” Gerber said. “When you assign a student to play the role of decision maker with a view that’s different from their own, they have to grapple with that diversity. “Empathy building is huge and is hard to teach, particularly in the polarized world we live in.”

Gerber has tested PolicyMaker in a number of her classes. The largest was her annual January class simulation that involves 150 students over two days.

“It’s complex, it’s confusing and there are so many moving parts that it’s hard to organize without technology,” she said.

PolicyMaker organizes all the moving parts and includes functions useful to students, such as an internal email system where they are addressed in their assigned roles.

“It re-emphasizes that they are in their roles and not their real identities,” she said. “It also has a news feed that students can post on within the simulation to provide commentary to the larger group and share resources. It supports all the communication they want to do.”

Gerber is working with U-M Tech Transfer and the Zell Lurie Institute at the Ross School of Business on the next steps to commercialize PolicyMaker, including its business model. She’s also building an assessment tool to help teachers gauge how students are doing on some of the hard-to-measure soft skills like how they interact with each other and how faithfully they stick to their roles.

“I’d like to see tons of educators have access to it to run simulations,” Gerber said. “It’s so powerful when you see students learn in real time. That’s why we do this.”


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