POET (originally Provider Order Entry Team, but now it’s really just POET) is an interdisciplinary team of researchers who study the development, implementation, and use of Electronic Health Records (EHRs). The team includes anthropologists, medical informaticians, clinicians, and others.

This diversity of backgrounds brought complementary, even if sometimes conflicting, perspectives to the group. But one persistent issue we faced was the quality of the observation fieldnotes. At times they lacked the richness and context necessary to fully understand them, to say nothing of contributing to productive analysis.

So when I was tasked with leading a two-hour workshop on observation methods for such a diverse group to improve the quality of our observation data, I decided to focus on the most concrete aspect of data collection: taking notes.

You can download the slide deck that I used during the workshop here. I know, PowerPoint presentations are awful, and those that have a bunch of text are the worst. But I wanted participants to be able to use it as a reference and refresher, and I tried to keep the text pithy.

To anthropologists and other qualitative researchers, this presentation might seem oversimplified and too basic. But given the diversity of the audience and the amount of time I had available, I was satisfied to see that on the field visit immediately after this workshop the observation fieldnotes our team produced were of significantly higher quality and usefulness.

I’ve taught a couple classes to talented and gifted youth using board games. But never in a context in which I could assign homework. Which is a shame, because I have an idea for what I think would be a wonderful class!


This class would integrate one of my favorite instructional aids, playing historic and strategic board games (in this case A Brief History of the World), with independent research, creative writing, and public speaking. I think drawing on such diverse activities and intelligences in a single class would be a highly productive, stimulating, and exciting experience for students. Class time would be spent in several ways: 1) an introduction to history as a varied subject beyond a series of events and dates, including the notion of embedded historians using examples like Thucydides and Homer as well as more contemporary historians. 2) Playing games! 3) Presenting research and discussing how it relates to what happens in the game. Homework would include independent research on the kingdoms, empires, and nations students have played as within the game, as well as writing, either purely historical or historical fiction, on some aspect of the history of that kingdom/empire/nation.

I did use A Brief History of the World in a week-long class for Saturday Academy’s week-long summer camp in 2011. Although I couldn’t assign any homework, I did use a watered-down version of this curriculum by offering the option for students to do some research and present it to the rest of the class each day. Although it wasn’t as deep as I would expect from a longer course, it did add some additional detail to the events students were playing through in the game.

Image of A Brief History of the World from BoardGameGeek is copyright its creator.


By playing A Brief History of the World, students would start to see history as not merely a sequence of events and dates, but as an interaction of systems. By making decisions within the game, they will come to understand some of the forces that influenced historical actors.

Playing the game would be complemented by their own research on the kingdoms, empires, or nations they represented in the game. Depending on the age level, this research would be supported by providing research material, an in-school trip to the library, discussions with librarians, or other research resources. Because board games are necessarily abstracted and simplified versions of reality, this historical research would add depth to the class as students relate it to the events that happen during the game. They would also cultivate skills like using primary and secondary sources for research, keeping track of their sources and collected information, and evaluating sources.

After being introduced to a range of historical texts, including those written by the people living through the events they’re writing about, as well as those on topics other than typical wars and nations, students would write their own histories (or historical fictions) informed by their research. In addition to expository and narrative writing, they would develop their ability to synthesize, summarize, connect, and creatively deploy disparate information from varied sources.

At the conclusion of the game, students would select one of their researched histories to expand into a presentation to deliver to the class. Because public speaking is so frequently feared, this practice would help students become more confident and engaging presenters.


On five consecutive Fridays for 1.5 hours each, I taught this class for the first time in January/February of 2010 to 6th and 7th graders at Laurelhurst School in Portland, OR through Saturday Academy’s in-school LEAP program. In this class I created for 6th-8th graders (but realistically up to 12th or beyond), students work in pairs, playing a variety of board games featuring various economic mechanisms, starting with simpler games like Settlers of Catan and advancing to more complex, like Wealth of Nations. They manage their scarce resources, experience first-hand the importance of capital investment and development, and alter their plans as supply and demand fluctuate.

All images are from BoardGameGeek and are copyright their creators.

Learning and Class Materials

Instead of learning economics through equations and graphs out of textbooks, students engage with simulations of economic mechanisms first-hand. Supply-and-demand affect their production and profits as they struggle to maximize their gains. Students reap the long-term rewards of their earlier capital investments if they have speculated accurately and invested shrewdly. Through this process, they develop a deeper appreciation and experiential understanding of abstract economic principles.

Each class, I provide my students with a handout of some economic concepts with brief definitions (all of which are available in the downloads section). As they play, I prompt them to relate their game-playing and decision-making to these handouts, and vice-versa. I also ask more general questions to get them to think critically about their decisions, like “Why did you choose to..?” and “What goal are you trying to accomplish by..?” Students creatively connect their experience of playing the game to their pre-existing knowledge, as well as to their handouts, to create new knowledge.

Economic concepts in each game (see the handouts in the downloads section for details):

Settlers of Catan

  • Capital
  • Raw Materials
  • Supply and Demand
  • Diversification
  • Scarcity
  • Opportunity Cost

Modern Art

  • Speculation
  • Expected Value
  • Common Value Auction
  • Winner’s Curse
  • Bid Shading
  • Path Dependency

Wealth of Nations

  • Marginal Cost
  • Economy of Scale
  • Scarcity
  • Capital
  • Raw Materials
  • Supply and Demand
  • Opportunity Cost

Settlers of Catan

The Games

My students played three games over the course of five sessions. Two days were spent playing Settlers of Catan twice, one day to Modern Art, and two days playing one game of Wealth of Nations. In Settlers of Catan, players build settlements, roads, and cities with resources that they produce and acquire from trading with each other. What they produce depends on where they build their settlements. In Modern Art, players speculate on the art market as they auction and purchase paintings. In Wealth of Nations, players develop their nation’s industries and trade crucial resources with each other.

Wealth of Nations

Student Evaluations

Both Saturday Academy and I like finding out what students thought of my class, though I’d prefer not to use a survey. Three students liked Modern Art the most, three others Wealth of Nations, and the remainder named Settlers as their favorite game played during the class. All students self-reported on a last-day survey that they a) are more interested in the topic of the class, b) know more about the topic than when before the class, and c) would recommend the class to their friends. And they all described me as “good” or “excellent.” Awwww. Of course, they knew that I would be seeing their surveys, which is guaranteed to bias their responses. But Saturday Academy constructed the survey, not I!

Room for Improvement

Next time, I would like to switch out Modern Art for another game. Of the three, it has the least similarities to the other two, so provides less opportunity for building on what students learned while playing other games. Instead of touching on a broad range of concepts, I would rather go more in-depth with a smaller number, building on their understanding as the class progresses. Each handout would include less concepts on it—I think the amount this time was a little overwhelming for some students. Perhaps next time I’ll use Power Grid or Automobile.

“Railroad Tycoons” is the new name of the class I have taught to gifted students entering 4th-6th grades over the summer in Worlds of Wisdom & Wonder and Summer Wonders, two programs through The Center for Gifted in Illinois. The same class is currently being taught by me in Portland, OR through Saturday Academy. Although the class originated as a splinter from a broader board game-centric class created by Christopher Freeman, mathematics teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, I created the specific materials (except the games themselves) for this class.

Students from my class plan their next moves in Empire Builder

Students from my class plan their next moves in Empire Builder---and no, their engagement wasn't staged!


The class meets for 50 minutes a day for two weeks, during which students play one of two railroad board games, Empire Builder or EuroRails, both of which are published by Mayfair Games. Both games are played by drawing track on the board, which is divided like a grid, and delivering loads of goods from cities in which they are available to cities which have a demand for them. The only significant difference between the two games is the geographical area they cover: North America and Europe, respectively. My students work in teams of two, optimally with four teams playing each game.

Empire Builder         EuroRails


Learning through activity, in this case play, can be greatly meaningful. When I was in 6th-11th grade, I attended a similar program (also through The Center for Gifted) that has had a profound effect on my life. It further kindled my desire for intellectual exploration and to learn and discover ideas, as well as forming the basis for my still-developing theoretical perspectives on learning and semiotics. By actively encountering the cities of North America and Europe, my students learn more permanently not only where these cities are, but what goods they export and how they might interact economically with other cities. They also learn how the availability of goods and geographic considerations like mountains have affected the growth of railroad systems. More generally applicable, they work together with their teammate, effectively communicate their ideas, and cultivate an ability to plan for the long term.

EuroRails Map Board Detail

Class Materials

Beside the board game itself, which includes reference sheets listing all the cities and where each good is available, each team records all of their plans on a handout that I have adapted from Christopher Freeman’s original after observing how my students interact with it. This not only facilitates my students’ planning and day-to-day continuity, but helps me write their evaluations at the end of the session. You can view this record sheet here. All of the materials I’ve created for this class are available in the downloads section, and the games are available from Mayfair (educational discounts apply).

In addition to this record keeping sheet, my students fill out a self-evaluation form before I write my evaluations. They are asked to describe at least one of each of the following: a correct decision they made, a mistake and what they learned from it, a good decision on the part of another team, and a general piece of advice to share with a new player. This self-evaluation helps me know what they actually learned from their experience playing the game, and helps them wrap up their two-week experience.

Other Responsibilities

Other than classroom management and helping to create an exciting, safe environment in which to explore the games, I am responsible for writing three letters primarily targeted at my students’ parents. On the first day, each student receives a handout describing the class to give to their parents. On the last, they receive a handout recapping the class and detailing ways to extend their classroom experience, in this case where they can buy the games they played and other recommended board game publishers (all of which are listed in the sidebar under ‘Board Games’). Finally, my evaluations of the students, which includes 4+ sentences detailing each of their specific personal achievements, are mailed home after the final day of class.

In Fall 2008, the first semester of my senior year at Reed College, I took a fieldwork methods class. Each student had to write an ethnographic final paper analyzing at least 8 hours of fieldwork. I chose a computer help desk as a fieldsite in which to explore conceptions of technology and Michael Jackson’s phenomenological claim that a feeling of “symbiotic mergedness” with technology is directly proportional—and radical alterity is indirectly proportional—with one’s understanding and control of that technology. After transcribing 8 hours of digital recordings of direct observation and informal interviews (transcription was the most tedious part of the process) into over 50 pages of text, this revised and slightly abridged paper is my mostly descriptive account of conceptions of technology at a computer help desk.

Download “‘Why the bleep aren’t you working?’ Agency and Subjectification at a Computer Help Desk” here. It’s also available from the Downloads section of this site.

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