Campus News

Poverty simulation helps students develop empathy

An article by two UGA researchers in the latest issue of the Journal of Poverty demonstrates that students participating in a simulation “soften their attitudes” regarding those who live in poverty.

Sharon Y. Nickols, the Janette McGarity Barber Distinguished Professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and Robb Nielsen, an assistant professor in the college, conducted both a qualitative and quantitative study to determine whether students developed “social empathy” after participating in a two-and-a-half hour simulation entitled, “Welcome to the State of Poverty.” During the simulation, students in Nickols’ course on managing family resources are clustered into various family groups-two parents and two children; an older woman living alone; a single mother with two children; and a cohabiting couple, for example. Faculty members and other volunteers play the roles of community members, such as the town banker, pawn shop owner and a social services employee.

During the course of the simulation, the participants must accomplish a variety of tasks, including buying groceries, paying bills and caring for both toddlers and aging parents while subsisting on low wages and other issues, such as being unable to speak English.

During the course of each 15-minute “month,” new situations are randomly interjected. In some cases, these are helpful events, such as an unemployed parent receiving a job. In other cases, the events add to the families’ difficulties, such as a family without health insurance facing illness. The simulation, led by Cooperative Extension multicultural specialist Sharon Gibson, has been used for many years with a variety of community leaders, but the study by Nickols and Nielsen is apparently the first to measure its impact on college students.

To measuring students’ attitudes Nickols and Nielson used a pre- and post-test and a reflective paper written after the simulation. They found that the students were better able to identify with the experiences and reactions of those in adverse or difficult situations. “It wasn’t a dramatic change, but we didn’t expect a dramatic change,” Nielsen said. “These students started relatively empathetic and became more ­empathetic.”