Teaching Teamwork through an Education Game: A Public Health Example

Going Virtual with Casual Games:  Strategies for Teaching during a Pandemic

An Eight Part Series. Part 6

 David Seelow, PhD©

Group or team work often presents a paradox to college and university faculty.  Teachers in secondary education have training in group teaching as part of their per-service education programs necessary for licensure. College faculty rarely have any   formal training in teaching groups, but group and teamwork cannot be avoided in the post graduate world. Regardless of your profession or job, you inevitably have to work as part of a team. Sometimes you will have choice regarding your team members, but often you will not. Consequently, conflict is not uncommon. Even a physician works as part of a critical team in surgery. The reality of life outside school demands that we teach and learn teamwork in school.

Students will arrive in college having done plenty of group work in high school, but surprisingly, often resist such work in a college class. Student resistance combined with faculty unfamiliarity with teaching group work makes this vital component of education difficult. Moreover the lack of standard assessments for teamwork can undermine the entire effort. You cannot ask students to work in a group and then assign tests to individuals. Let’s add the newest factor to this quagmire of learning: remote classes. COVID-19 has pushed many classes, at least temporarily online, and teamwork now needs to take place among geographically distant students. However, ss more businesses move to remote work situations the need for new employees to be skilled in remote team work will be high.

Game-based learning can facilitate deep group learning in an engaging fashion, both in the traditional classroom and online. For instance, the board game Pandemic proves a great opportunity for students to engage in cooperative learning. You cannot win the game, i.e., beat the pandemic, without working together. Pokemon Go “Raid Battles” require teamwork and World of Warcraft has a guild structure where cooperation plays a vital role. Games can be an effective means of teaching the importance of teamwork and prepare for group learning activities in virtually all disciplines.

Outbreak Squad

Created with a SPECA Challenge Grant, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, a New Mexico State University team designed Outbreak Squad to educate students, and parents about food pathogens and serious outbreaks caused by contamination. What could be more relevant during a pandemic than learning to prevent, cope with, and mitigate contagious diseases? You can choose to battle one of several contagious disease outbreaks. Each one is based on an actual outbreak. Thus the game has an authentic basis for any history of social studies class in addition to any class in health, public health, sociology, public policy and the like. Below is a reproduction from the New Mexico State University webpage on one of the game’s outbreaks.

Hammy Burgens

Food Type:



Shigatoxigenic E. coli O157:H7


A restaurant chain across four states


732 people affected

178 permanently damaged

4 deaths

The real case

In 1993, a popular fast-food restaurant ran a promotion and discounted their hamburger sales across four states. Unfortunately, the restaurant received meat contaminated with a novel strain of bacteria known as shigatoxigenic E. coli. from their suppliers. The restaurant cooked the beef according to federal standards of the time, bringing the internal temperature to 140 °F (60 °C). However, this temperature was not high enough to kill the bacteria. The guideline has since been raised to 160 °F (71.1 °C).

How to prevent or mitigate

Recalling contaminated products; ensuring that the food is cooked to above 165 °F before freezing; following reheating guidelines.”

In the game you play four squad members: The Educator, The Enforcer, The Healthcare Professional, and The Researcher. The game provides information about each role as well as describing career opportunities related to the roles.  It is a diverse squad (2 women, 2 men, an African American, a disabled individual). As a squad member has a set of skills used to combat the outbreak. For example, the Educator can employ Community Outreach, Food Safety Classes, Risk Training, and Food Safety Guidelines. Each skill proves essential to the game and all four members’ skills must coalesce – in other words- the team is interdependent, and the squad’s success depends upon such –interdependence. Students must learn the value- the necessity- of working as part of an interdependent team and the value of communication and balance within a team. In game play each skill has both a cost and a benefit. Food Safety Classes protect the next three high risk people from infection but costs 2 points. You begin the level with 10 points. Each moment of the game, each decision provides teachable moments. The player selects which team members and skills to employ within the ten-point limit and then hits Go to fight the attack. Results of the episode are recorded on a disease dashboard at the top of of the screen which tallies: infected, sick, very sick, and dead in addition to whether the people are low or high risk. The risk category must be thought about when deciding what approach to take each round. You want to use all ten points available, i.e. your resources, but making sure those resources target the disease’s spread with precision. This decision making requires careful monitoring of the dynamic dashboard. In other words, the player must show situational awareness of all factors impacting the spread of the disease, manage resources, and implement a balanced team approach. This game introduces students as early as grade five to the value of teamwork and for order grades and college can help implement group learning in an authentic public health context transferable to other multidisciplinary problems.

In conclusion, Project Outbreak presents a solid game for teaching how teams work in addressing complex, multidimensional problems that demand multiple disciplines and different layers of communication and coordination. Following a day of game play, I would introduce a group activity that addresses a related complex problem in public health, public policy or a related field and observe how well the teams applied what they learned playing Project Outbreak.

Lesson Idea

Use a projector and play through the different rounds of the game with students broken into small groups that reflect the game’s four roles. Each team must work together to make decisions about interventions and talk through each decision. The teacher then starts the round, and everyone watches the results before passing on to the next team which needs to reassess the situation based on the results of the previous team’s intervention.

In a health science, environmental science, consumer science or public health/public policy set up a related problem from recent history-maybe the Eboli crisis from the Obama years, the opioid crisis, HIV crisis or other problems that have a regional, national, or international scope. The class can determine what kind of professionals are required for the addressing the presented problem and then role play scenarios written by the instructor or an instructional designer in consultation with the subject matter expert. These should be played as small groups with the instructor as outside observer, and the assessed using one of the tools provided under Resources.


The Center for Disease Control


Every science and health professor and teacher should be familiar with the CDC website for its wealth of information, data sources, recommendations, analyses of trends, and official publications. The site has a specific page that gathers information pertaining to both national and international outbreaks of all kinds.

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University


This resource from Carnegie Mellon University has excellent material on how to assess different components of group learning including individuals within a group, the entire group, the group process, and the group product. The site provides many concrete examples of assessment tools that instructors can use in assessing group work.

New Mexico State University Innovative Media and Extension


The Learning Games Lab is part of this larger center at the university. The design teams at the development studio include a “user-testing research space, and an exploratory environment for playing and evaluating games and educational tools.” Being part of the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Science, the lab focuses on agriculture. They have many excellent animations, games, apps, and interactive tools.

*** If you want consultation, or professional development help with online learning, course design, game-based learning, games in the classroom, comics in the classroom, film, or Language Arts/Literature contact me at: davidseelow@gmail.com.

Keep an eye out for the release of my new book Teaching in the Game-Based Classroom: Practical Strategies for Grades 6-12, to be published by Routledge’s Eye on Education series. You can pre-order here: https://www.routledge.com/Teaching-in-the-Game-Based-Classroom-Practical-Strategies-for-Grades-6-12/Seelow/p/book/9780367487492

Purchase or recommend to your library our book Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2019), a practical guide to classroom teaching with new literary forms.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *