An Interview with Alexander Schiller

Dr. ès sc. habil. Alexander Schiller is a junior professor for inorganic chemistry at the University of Jena (Germany). His research interest is biomimetic signal transduction with inorganic chemistry models ( Dr. Schiller studied chemistry at LMU Munich (Germany). He did his Ph.D. at EPFL in Lausanne (Switzerland) and went for a Postdoc at UC Santa Cruz (USA). Currently he holds a Heisenberg fellowship from the German Science Foundation. As inorganic chemistry professor he broadened his portfolio in 2012 with the project Schiller & Mertens ( teaching advanced research skills, such as communication in science, team building and leading competencies, and didactics and methodology in university teaching. As active researcher and group leader, Dr. Schiller knows the challenges facing natural scientists and addresses them in an interactive setting with learning simulations.

Thiagi: Alex, what is specialty area?

Alexander: I perform research on biomimetic signal transduction with inorganic chemistry models. I teach inorganic chemistry at university level with interactive learning concepts. With Schiller & Mertens I work with activity-based facilitation in the education of transferable skills for scientists.

Thiagi: How did you get into designing and using games?

Alexander: While I was studying chemistry I played in a theater group: ( I learned improtheater, role playing, directing, and music. I have been playing the piano since my childhood and perform as a pianist for atmospheric improvisations. Theater and music represents an essential part of my life. Playful learning is one of the secrets in motivation. I realized that playful learning is also possible at the university. I got in contact with Barnga and thought immediately, “Who is this person who invented this genius activity?”

Thiagi: How long have you been designing and using games?

Alexander: Since 2011. Now I am trying to turn every boring lecture, seminar and practical course into an activity-based learning experience. Now I am not designing content anymore, I am designing the activity.

Thiagi: Where do you use games?

Alexander: I use games and activities in my teaching at the university. But most of the activities are used in our training sessions with Schiller & Mertens.

Thiagi: How do your clients respond?

Alexander: When the clients read the evaluations or ask the participants after the training they often ask:,“Why are the participants so enthusiastic about your training?” The answer is, “We are using the right activities which help the participants to reflect their real situations. Creating ‘ahas’ is our strength.”

Thiagi: How do your participants respond?

Alexander: May I read you a testimony of Prof. Dr. Jonathan Gershenzon (Director of Max Planck Institute, Chemical Ecology, Jena):

“For my department, [Schiller & Mertens] gave two excellent half-day courses on the subject of science communication, including topics such as feedback, conflict, and collaboration. As working scientists, they know the subject well, and were able to present their material in a fascinating and relevant way with compelling examples and easy-to-recall take-home messages. Their interactive manner, use of games, and readiness to answer questions held the attention of our group very well, and resonated with nearly all members from project leaders and post-docs to Ph.D. students and technicians. Especially appealing to me, was their very humanistic perspective on science, including their positive view of collaboration and optimistic feeling about scientific progress.

“Many of the members of my department called this the best workshop they had ever attended, and it has already had a very noticeable positive effect on group dynamics. I would recommend Schiller & Mertens highly to any group of scientists that wants to learn communications and other soft skills in effective, interactive and entertaining ways.”

Thiagi: What is the most horrible or embarrassing moment you had in conducting games?

Alexander: Before I met Thiagi, I thought there were participants from hell. Now I know these participants are a gift and they challenge us facilitators to stay modest: Let the inmates run the asylum.

Thiagi: What advice do you have to newcomers about interactive training?

Alexander: Before trying out a game as facilitator, it is of outstanding importance that you learn them as participant. You need to feel it before you can use it for teaching!

Thiagi: What types of games do you use most frequently?

Alexander: Thiagi’s 100 favorite games, Barnga, Memory, and Silent Post.

Thiagi: What are your favorite games?

Alexander: Silent Post designed by A. Schiller, D. Mertens, and R. Mohr

Thiagi: Who are your favorite game designers?

Alexander: I like to watch my kids and other kids when they design their own games and not being passively overloaded by media. As I am not anymore a kid I need Thiagi to learn from him how to design games.

Thiagi: Do you have any book recommendations?

Alexander: Trees, maps, and theorems by Jean-luc Doumont. Great artwork on effective communication for rational minds. Now let us create games on that topic!

Thiagi: What is your prediction about the future of games?

Alexander: Digital learning on Youtube or with MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) will play a major role in the future. However, social activity-based learning with physical presence of the participants will be of central importance to balance out the solitude in modern digital learning.