On the eve of a major sporting event, Eric Nelson is already thinking about the next one.

The former social studies teacher from Minneapolis has upended the traditional model of classroom learning by applying fantasy league-style games to topics of global importance.

His company FANschool encourages students to learn about geopolitics by drafting countries to their "teams" and reading the news to find mentions of those countries to earn points.

Now, Nelson is applying interactive fantasy gaming to the Winter Olympics.

When the Olympics kick off next week, anyone in the country can take FANschool's Olympic Challenge by filling out a bracket — just like with March Madness. The only difference between actual fantasy sports and Nelson's version is that instead of learning everything you can about drafts and contracts to make educated picks, participants will be reading the news to learn about the world.

"I am always thinking about how can I help teachers create better daily habits for young people who have never held a newspaper before," said Nelson, who left his job at North Lakes Academy in Forest Lake two years ago to focus on FANschool.

In the first round of the Olympic Challenge, teams choose five countries they think will be in the news most during the two weeks of the games. Doing research ahead of time on, for instance, the history of the Korean Peninsula and conflicts around the globe could give teams a leg up.

In the second round, the teams select the countries that they think will earn the most medals. Some knowledge of sports, as well as history and even climate, will help here.

In the last round, participants rank their previous picks. Those teams with the most points will earn prizes.

Distraction to discovery

Though Nelson's FANschool is just for schools, the Olympic Challenge is open to anyone, as long as they enter before the end of the opening ceremony on Feb. 9. Classes, families and sports clubs can all form their own leagues.

"We're just putting geography in front of you," Nelson said. "We're trying to engage everyone who is into the Olympics — which is all of us — in more and deeper learning."

Nelson got the idea for applying fantasy sports to education in 2009. He'd been frustrated with his students, who always seemed to be on their phones, but never seemed to read any news.

While he was working on a lesson plan, he got distracted and checked his fantasy football team, reading news about players and making adjustments to his roster.

"I realized that the fantasy sports model is actually the best news distribution and engagement mechanism in existence," Nelson said.

The next day, he came into class with a prototype of a game for students to draft countries and score by finding mentions of those countries in the news. Since then, FANschool has been used in hundreds of classrooms. (Each classroom pays $99 to subscribe. The Olympic Challenge is free. Sign up at fanschool.org/olympics.)

Supported by research

Turns out that Nelson's approach has research to back it up. Fantasy games can contribute to deeper learning, said Erica Halverson, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Her research on gaming in education found that the combination of competition and fandom create a "sweet spot" where gamers become deeply invested.

"We found that folks that had that kind of interest and information persisted in the game more frequently and with greater vigor in depth than those that didn't," Halverson said.

Morgan Green, a teacher in Canton, Ga., has been using FANschool in her high school U.S. and World Affairs classes for three years, and plans to participate with the class in the Olympic Challenge.

"It's one thing if you read about something, but [with FANschool] you come into class in the morning and students are saying, 'Did you see what happened in Syria today? It lost me so many points,' " Green said. "It brings it to life and makes the connection between the classroom and what people are talking about."

Nelson previously hosted a similar bracket-style challenge for the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

Allegra Smisek, an 8th grade global studies teacher in Hopkins, had her class take part in the election bracket.

"That was a pretty divisive election season and it was hard to keep class conversations positive and focused on the electoral process," Smisek said. "I felt like this challenge really enabled us to do that in a way that was educational and also lighthearted and positive."

Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853