2016-10-07 / Neighbors
Tackling a national emergency
Reagan Library’s Situation Room puts students to the test
The stock market is crashing. Allegations abound as to who fired the shot and countries are threatening to invade each other. How should the U.S. respond?
Rather than the Obama administration making the decisions, a class of 33 high school seniors was tasked with determining what action, if any, to take from inside the new highstakes, fast-paced Situation Room Experience at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley.
The Situation Room Experience, which opened last month, places high school and college age students in the roles of important government officials, like White House press correspondents, secretary of state, and even head of the FBI.
Up to 55 students can play at one time, but a minimum of 15 are needed in order for the simulation to work, said Mira Cohen, the Reagan Library’s director of education.
“What’s really exciting is the face-to-face interaction between the students as they make 40 decisions amongst themselves over the course of the 90-minute game,” Cohen said. “But the real learning happens in the debrief afterward, where they talk about what happened during the game.”
The Situation Room Experience is the second exhibit of its kind for the Reagan Library. The first interactive gallery, the Discovery Center, opened in 2008 with replicas of the Oval Office, a pressroom, a command center and the Air Force One fuselage.
It is the actual room from the White House where seven presidents handled some of the nation’s biggest crises, including the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Cold War in the 1980s and the events that unfolded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“ When former president George W. Bush decided the situation room command center needed a technology upgrade in 2006, it was boxed up and crated here and literally reinstalled,” Cohen said. “The paneling, carpet, seal of the United States, microphones—everything—is the original stuff.”
Although the game is set in a modern-day fictional world, the inspiration for the Situation Room Experience was drawn from the 1981 attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, said Trey Alsup, who wrote and designed the simulation.
“(The game) is based on how the press is doing with the information they get from sources and what government officials choose to share, and the situation around the world,” Alsup said.
“The core educational question is whether to invoke the 25th Amendment,” he continued. (The amendment deals with whether the vice president should assume the role of president in an emergency.)
“Hopefully, (the students will) leave with a better understanding of the 25th Amendment and understand how difficult a decision like that is,” Alsup said.
Before students arrive at the Situation Room, they receive materials with the necessary background for their roles. At the exhibit the students are divided into three groups, each with particular assignments, and receive a tablet loaded with information needed for the game.
Students assigned to playing the press are divided up among four news stations—CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC—that must break the news while being accurate.
A second group assigned to the hospital room is responsible for relaying information about the president’s condition to those in the Situation Room, where the third group of students is stationed, including the head of the FBI, the secretary of defense and the secretary of state.
Within each section, live footage plays in the background to help the participants make their decisions. The students must then decide whether to invoke the 25th Amendment.
“Students are faced with balancing a constitutional issue in the face of a crisis . . . and it’s a great conversation-starter for what it’s like to be in the media and being ethical in the face of conflict,” Cohen said.
“The decisions they make have consequences and alter the course of the game,” she continued. “It’s different every single time. No experience is ever the same.”
When the game is over, students gather in the press room to discuss their experiences.
Liz Ramos, who teaches the group of Alta Loma High School AP government students who tried out the simulation last week, said the Situation Room is “the golden standard for bringing history and education to life.”
“The Situation Room is a hightech environment that takes the students’ heads out of their books and helps them understand what it feels like to be making decisions in a time of crisis, when every decision has a consequence, whether we realize it or not,” Ramos said.
“The game is a great way to encourage students to engage with the material and then share that knowledge with others when we get to that part of the class.”