Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

2008 Action Teaching Award Winner

SPN Action Teaching Award    The entry below won the 2008 Social Psychology Network Action Teaching Award. Instructors are welcome to use or adapt this material for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given to the award recipient.

For additional details, please see the SPN Action Teaching Award home page.

Winning Entry
Title: The Forced Migration Project: A Refugee Shelter Display
Submitted by: David ("Tony") Hoffman (University of California at Santa Cruz)
Category: Classroom activity, student assignment, field experience
For students/learners in: College, high school
Objective(s): To (1) teach students about psychological and cultural aspects of forced migration, particularly the migration of children in war zones, (2) let students experience the construction of shelters used for refugees and internally displaced persons, and (3) educate the campus community about forced migration


Student Construction Crew Most of the world's war-affected families are refugees or "internally displaced persons" (IDPs), people who have been forced to migrate from their homes and communities. Over 9 million children currently live in refugee camps outside their country of origin, and another 10 million children are IDPs living within their country but displaced from their home. Although refugees and IDPs are generally regarded as a political problem, forced migration has potent psychosocial effects, including trauma, loss, helplessness, humiliation, uncertainty, and fear.

The Forced Migration Project is an activity I developed as part of an undergraduate course, "Children and War," concerned with the psychosocial impacts of war on children. To highlight the topic of forced migration, some former students and I devised a lesson in which the class could see firsthand what refugee housing is like. The assignment was for students to build a typical IDP shelter and erect a refugee tent on a campus lawn, using only the tools and supplies typically available to refugees in emergency situations, and to create informational posters, handouts, charts, and flyers for public display next to the shelters. This exhibit was displayed for one week, with students staffing the exhibit during the day.

Funding and Approval

To secure funding and approval for the project, I submitted a project proposal to the Psychology Department and the provost's office before the academic term began. In addition, the project was reviewed by the UCSC Office of Academic Affairs, the Office of Risk Management, our grounds crew, and our campus security office. The budget included these items:

  • office supplies, display boards, and posters on refugees
  • a rapid deployment refugee tent of the kind used by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
  • materials for a typical IDP tropical shelter, including tarpaulins, roofing, nails, 3/8" nylon cord, duct tape, a hammer, shovel, wire, and a saw

All told, the cost for this project ended up being just over $800.


Once the project was approved, students researched shelter construction and planned the exhibit. They purchased most of the educational materials themselves and were reimbursed by a small grant provided by the UCSC Center for Teaching Excellence. I provided instruction on the psychosocial aspects of refugee/IDP children, resources about refugee and IDPs, and methods for obtaining forced migration information (e.g., field reports). The students then organized a leadership team charged with coordinating the project, forming focus groups, and ensuring that tasks were completed on schedule. In all, 60 students participated in the project.


Building the IDP Shelter Students spent over three weeks gathering information on forced migration, including refugee life, psychosocial adjustment, public health issues, and refugee/IDP shelters in different parts of the world (the main information sources for the exhibits were the U.N. World Food Programme, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees). Students groups were also assigned responsibility for setting up and taking down the shelters, creating and obtaining educational materials, staffing the exhibits, and so on. The exhibits included posters, art, videos, and handouts covering topics such as refugee and IDP health, the Darfur crisis, crime and rape in the camps, schooling, Red Cross operations, medical services, and more (for examples, see this Forced Migration Quiz and UNHCR poster). There were also detailed portrayals of children in flight and protracted displacement.

A Sidewalk Exhibit The exhibits were set up on a Saturday and located where passersby could approach on pavement, look over the materials, and then cross a short distance of lawn to the shelters. The refugee tent took students only an hour to set up, but because the only tools available were a hammer, mallet, bucket, knife, and handsaw, the IDP shelter took about five hours to erect and proved to be quite a learning exercise. The shelter was modeled from photos and used materials from the local environment, as most IDP shelters do (relief agencies are rarely able to supply all building materials).

The exhibits were staffed by four students per four-hour shift, and the following "theme" days highlighted specific issues affecting refugees and IDPs:

Day 1:  Basic Needs (food, water, sanitation, etc.)
Day 2:HIV, Disease, and Contagion
Day 3:Sexual and Gender-Based Violence; Insecurity Within Camps
Day 4:Education
Day 5:Reintegration and Resettlement

During the week, over 700 people visited the exhibits long enough to sign a register, enter the shelters, or take educational materials. On the last day, a team of students dismantled the exhibits and cleaned the area. The tent, tarps, roofing, and other building materials were stored for future use, as were many posters and handouts.

Evaluation and Follow-Up

Students Staffing the Exhibit At the end of the week, students were given questionnaires to assess their learning and evaluate the activity's value. For example, students were asked to define five basic demographics of IDP/refugee children; all students were able to do so accurately. More than 90% of the students also rated the activity as "great" or "fantastic."

To improve the project in the future, students suggested gathering high quality posters earlier in the project; attracting visitors with baked goods; setting up the exhibits in a more densely populated area (e.g., downtown); and inviting guest speakers who have experienced forced displacement.

One unanticipated indicator of success is that I received seven outside requests to borrow the materials for similar exhibits. Three of these requests were from groups with a partisan political agenda (so I declined), but four others were for educational purposes, so I ended up loaning the shelters and posters to two high schools, the local Red Cross, and a campus organization concerned with refugee issues.


Overall, the Forced Migration Project was a great learning experience for students and generated a high degree of interest within the broader campus community. I therefore plan to repeat the activity regularly in the future.

This example of action teaching can readily be used or adapted for less than $15 per student. All materials are widely available for purchase except the refugee tent, which must be procured from relief agencies or the UNHCR. The materials are also easy to reuse and mobile enough to be displayed in parks, city centers, and schools. Anyone implementing the project simply needs modest funding and a small storage space (about ten cubic feet) for the materials.

Perhaps the most important caveat is to avoid political partisanship. The sponsors and campus agencies at my school wanted to make sure that the project would not take sides or favor some refugees over others. Consequently, I made certain that the project focused on the plight of all refugee children, regardless of their race, creed, or political affiliation. This universalist orientation was essential in securing support and approval, both on campus as well as subsequently when the displays were shown by the Red Cross (in a downtown plaza) and local schools (requiring school board approval).

Finally, this project raises several research questions that might be studied in the future: How are refugees/IDPs subjected to negative stereotyping? How much do Americans know about the effects of war on population movement? Do they equate refugees with terrorists and/or extremist groups? Do they understand the difficulties associated with refugee/IDP life and the obstacles to recovering self-sufficiency? The Forced Migration Project allows for an exploration of these and other issues, with students and visitors serving as key informants.

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