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Wheels and Deals

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    Students put on a game show titled "Wheel of Consequences" for their final project in the "Wheels and Deals" class. (photo by Carlos Bqarron)

New class shows students that game shows aren’t just for entertainment

It’s the Thursday night before Fall Break and two pairs of students are competing to see who can make the most peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in two minutes – blindfolded and without knives.

The audience roars with laughter as the teams fumble through the exercise. When the two minutes are up, the teams are tied at nine sandwiches each so the competition goes into overtime. Now they need to see who can make the most sandwiches in 15 seconds.

In the end, the team called “The Little Debbies” wins and advances into a final round of competition in which they have to answer trivia questions about food. For winning, they receive a gift certificate to a new frozen yogurt shop in town.

Game shows can be fun, but they can also be a vehicle to teach students some important concepts, says Alison Marr, an assistant professor of mathematics at Southwestern.

Marr developed a First-Year Seminar titled “Wheels and Deals: A Survey of Television Game Shows,” which was offered for the first time this year.

Marr, who is a long-time fan of game shows, said she got the idea for the class from a famous math problem known as “The Monty Hall Problem” that is based on the popular television game show called “Let’s Make a Deal.”

In the show, contestants are asked to pick one of three doors. One door has a good prize behind it – say a car – and the other two doors have an undesirable prize behind them – like a goat. After the contestants have announced their choice, host Monty Hall opens one of the two remaining doors which he knows has an undesirable prize behind it. After that door is opened, contestants are given the opportunity to keep the door they have picked or select the remaining unopened door.

“Your intuition tells you something very different from what the math really is,” Marr says. “Most people assume that each of these doors has an equal probability and conclude that switching does not matter. In fact, the player should switch, because doing so doubles the probability of winning the car from one in three to two in three.”

Marr’s class covers strategies for winning on game shows, along with topics such as the history of game shows and set design for game shows. For homework, students have to watch four different game shows and write about them. They also have to read the book Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! by former “Jeopardy” contestant Bob Harris.

“I want students to see that game shows are more than just something on TV,” Marr says. “They affect our culture. And there are references to game shows in many things we hear on a daily basis.”

For their final project, the students have to put together everything they learned and stage their own game shows in the Bishop’s Lounge. Game shows the students invented this year included “Wheel of Consequences,” in which students had to answer questions about their roommates, and “With Food,” in which teams competed to see who could do the best in a variety of challenges involving food.

“Wheels and Deals” is offered as a Living-Learning Community, so students in the class also live with each other.

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