Professor Ethan Mollick and Sarah Toms are co-founders of Wharton Interactive, a community of researchers and instructors dedicated to transforming learning.

How an Online Expedition to Saturn Builds Better Leaders

The year is 2087. You have been invited along with other students to join the Enceladus Expedition, the first commercial space mission to Saturn’s moon Enceladus, whose south pole provides the only reliable source of liquid water beyond Earth. You accept this mission – and for a total of six hours over the next few days you will have to navigate real-world challenges as you compete with other teams during your online journey. You have joined The Saturn Parable simulation.

In the Outer Reaches of the Solar System

Jumping on a spacecraft to Saturn with other high school students from around the world may sound really appealing right about now, even from the comfort of your own computer. This particular escape, says Ethan Mollick, a Wharton associate professor of management who co-founded Wharton Interactive to create games that teach, is more than just a fun ride – it’s a learning experience.

Mollick (with a team of collaborators) led the design of The Saturn Parable, a multiplayer game that also teaches and evaluates leadership and team skills. The Wharton Global Youth Program has partnered with Wharton Interactive to provide the game to high school students this June (see related links with this article to enroll in the simulation).

“Research shows that simulations are the best way to teach leadership,” says Mollick, who has spent 15 years building and studying games for teaching. “If you analyze the best way to train teams, for example, simulations beat out lectures, group exercises, performance reviews and all the other things we try.” Mollick, a long-time gamer, boasts some 410 games in his own library.

The Saturn Parable mission to Enceladus is critical because it will prove to be the key to humanity’s expansion beyond Earth. The company that can land first on Saturn’s moon will claim its water supplies and trillions of dollars worth of value. Players must solve problems throughout (think navigational decisions, telemetry data, and mission control mandates) as they make their way to Enceladus. They receive continuous performance feedback from the gaming interface, and Mollick delivers live Zoom lectures. Players are able to interact through the game, as well as with one another in their Zoom team room.

“It needs to feel realistic enough that your decisions matter and the world makes sense. We want to give you an experience you’ll remember.” — Ethan Mollick, Wharton Interactive

For the duration of the simulation students are on their spaceship, in the outer reaches of the solar system. “You need to use your own skills in the art of persuading and collaborating with teammates,” notes Sarah Toms, co-founder and executive director of Wharton Interactive. “The best leaders hone their abilities through years of practice, lots of trial and error, and deep, personal reflection every step of the way while integrating the feedback of others. Simulations provide learners with a concentrated experience of each of these components. We can design the perfect scenarios that expose learners to concepts, providing opportunities to practice approaches to leadership and get feedback that’s grounded in research and best practice.”

The Saturn Parable teaches three key levels of leadership, adds Mollick. “You learn about strategic leadership: how do you make large-scale choices and how do you apply some basic ideas of game theory and expected value to beat your competition. You learn about organizational leadership: how you craft messages and inspire groups of people and how you reconcile competing goals inside your organization. And you learn about team leadership: how you get a group of people to do the things you want them to do and how you avoid mental traps people fall into that destroy team performance. How do you inspire and lead?”

Chocolate-covered Broccoli?

From the perspective of game designers, an interstellar mission is more than just a cool experience, it’s an effective learning environment. “We need to put people in unfamiliar surroundings,” says Mollick. “And it needs to have what we call verisimilitude or realism. It needs to feel realistic enough that your decisions matter and the world makes sense. We want to give you an experience you’ll remember. That’s important because then you’ll remember the lessons.” Even the stars surrounding the moons of Saturn in The Saturn Parable are positioned as they will be in 2087.

And, of course, you’ll enjoy the ride, which is the ultimate goal for any gamer, and one that Mollick and Toms take seriously in their mission to pioneer new approaches to education. “This is not chocolate-covered broccoli where it’s not a fun experience, but you pretend to make it fun by adding game around it. It’s built from the ground up to be a good game,” notes Mollick.

In this cutting-edge way of learning, adds Toms, the challenge is real. “The learner is in the driver’s seat — or in this case, captain’s chair — able to immediately put into practice the concepts and theories being taught. Students will come away with a deeper understanding of leadership and teamwork concepts, you will have made new connections with peers from across the globe, and you will have lots of fun.”

Conversation Starters

The Saturn Parable is a simulation. What is this? Have you participated in other simulations? What did you learn? Share your experience in the Comment section of this article.

How does The Saturn Parable -- and likely other simulations -- teach leadership?

Do you think gaming is or can be an effective teaching tool? Why or why not?

3 thoughts on “How an Online Expedition to Saturn Builds Better Leaders

  1. The article, “How an Online Expedition to Saturn Builds Better Leaders” describes a first step in simulated learning for high school students. However, the Coronavirus has highlighted a need for advancement in computer based teaching methods. As a high schooler with younger siblings, I recognize the limitations inherent in online classrooms. It is extremely difficult for children to maintain their attention span while staring at a 2D screen. In addition, the advantages of group based learning with the benefits of socialization are not met with current online classroom methods. Mollick’s work studying games for teaching proves that computer simulation “beats out lectures, group exercises… and all other things we try” to develop leadership skills in our youth. I believe that the COVID pandemic provides an opportunity to reexamine the education of the next generation. Expansion of Mollick’s project, in combination with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology is the necessary next step.

    Today’s youth processes and integrates information far differently than past generations. It is difficult to keep students involved and interested when so many distractions are available on their devices and at home. While parents are focused on work, teachers will need to rely not only on the content of their lessons but the way it is presented to effectively engage their pupils. For example, the “MagicBook,” developed by Milgram, allows students to use a handheld Augmented Reality display to see three dimensional virtual models appearing out of the pages. When students see or read a scene that interests them, they can literally immerse themselves in the virtual environment being described. This eliminates textbooks as static sources of information. This idea can be applied universally to kindergarten classes first learning to read, biology students understanding anatomy, or engineering majors studying electrical concepts. In addition, an expansion of Mollick’s simulation program using AR and VR, makes socialization and teamwork training more accessible. By sitting in a virtual workspace together, communication cues such as gaze, gesture, and nonverbal behavior allow for realistic social interactions.The learning of which is as crucial to future success as comprehension of the information. These important qualities of education are not met with current computer-based learning techniques.

    While the “Saturn Parable” deals with leadership skills and teamwork training, the expansion of this concept using AR and VR, can solve many additional obstacles in education that we will face in the future. With limitations in travel, this idea can bring children to Antarctica or ancient Egypt to immerse themselves in a new geography or culture. Schools can also perform science experiments safely without expensive equipment. The California State University and the University of California Schools have already announced that their campuses will be closed for the coming fall semester. Many schools are likely to follow their lead making online learning the new norm. By combining Mollick’s program with Augmented and Virtual reality technology, we can engage students effectively, improve the education of learners, and provide the much needed social experience that is lacking in current online teaching.

  2. What a cool application of VR to teach team building and leadership skills! As a visual and hands-on learner, I am a firm believer in the efficacy of learning by doing. The really innovative element in this particular application is that it aims to teach soft skills such as leadership and team building as opposed to tasks or task-related skills. VR and simulation have long been used for training and teaching skills; think pilots, race car drivers, astronauts, surgeons, and military personnel, to name a few professions. Another application of this technology could be for assessing and not teaching decision making and team-building skills. The hiring and promotion process, especially for management positions has long been riddled with claims of gender, race, and age discrimination. What if we could take this simulation technology and apply it as an assessment tool to measure the skills most desired for a particular position, in addition to the candidate meeting the required academic and professional qualifications for the role? Interviews conducted by people can never be completely free of conscious or subconscious bias. Additionally, interviews are always subjective, no matter how objectively they are designed, due to the human element. The blind audition experiment that started with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the mid 20th century to reduce gender bias, and has now become standard across the top orchestras in the nation due to its resounding success, is a testament to the fact that bias does exist. However, the response from the business world to this experiment has been to invest heavily in bias awareness training. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that bias awareness helps. When we interact with another person, we make many quick “judgments” that result in an overall “opinion” about that person. This opinion is subject to our conscious and unconscious biases. To truly evaluate a person’s capabilities, especially skills like leadership potential and team building, a simulation such as this would be a much more effective tool and will help address the lack of diversity in management positions across industries.

  3. Learning through experience is unarguably one of the most effective methods to learn skills that are developed through discipline and example, and it does not necessarily require a prerequisite set of knowledge. Leadership is a great illustration of this. Although one can attend informative lectures and read many books, without practice, it would be very difficult for one to actually implement these new ideas of “leadership” into their professional lives. Consequently, the efficacy of “The Saturn Parable” can be attributed to the interactiveness of the program, and the real-time competition is something that cannot be replicated through text.
    There is a scene in “Good Will Hunting” where a man talks to a young adult about the difference between being knowledgeable about a topic and actually having wisdom. He shows this by explaining how one may know all the personal details of Michelangelo’s life but not know what it’s like to actually be in the presence of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a marvel painted by Michelangelo. Although this is more of a philosophical approach, it applies well to the concept of leadership. The lesson is analogous; knowledge can be considered as having textbook experience on something, but wisdom can be considered as actually having practice and experience.

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