May 29, 2014

Crafty Ways to Use Minecraft at School

Teachers are leveraging a popular video game as a STEM teaching tool

Kristin Stanberry

Maybe your child is one of the thousands hooked on Minecraft, a video game that lets players build with textured cubes in a virtual 3D world. Players can also explore seemingly endless worlds and time periods, gather resources, craft, and engage in combat. What you may not be aware of is the inherent educational potential of the game. Common Sense Media describes Minecraft as “an open-ended, exploration and creation focused environment…Players can create items and buildings from scratch using materials they harvest from the world around them…Kids can learn creative thinking, geometry, and even a little geology as they build imaginative block structures in this refreshingly open-ended mining and construction game.”

Third grade teacher Jennifer Bond discovered the educational value of the popular video game almost by accident. Speaking at the 2013 STEMx Education Conference, she said it was her students who introduced her to the game during one of the designated BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) days in her classroom. “I discovered how well the game helps kids connect technology to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum. It’s a lot like virtual Lego building.”

In addition to using Minecraft’s scale game to build an accurate model of their bedrooms, Jennifer’s students used Minecraft to study:

Geology: Students used Minecraft’s “survival mode” to dig for rocks and minerals (identifying types and uses along the way). They also created virtual worlds with landforms studied in their class curriculum.
Plants and Animals: Students planted melon and wheat seeds for food and used bone meal (from skeletons!) as fertilizer--something some kids didn’t know about in real life.
Engineering: Projects like “Ancient Metropolis” and the “Bedrock Dome” took players well beyond building basic survival shelters, teaching them elaborate architectural and civil engineering concepts.
Math: Students used Minecraft to determine volume, area, perimeter, patterns, and more. For example: they calculated angles for characters shooting arrows at targets.

Links to activities like these can be found within the game (especially the full educator’s version) or on one of the many virtual communities and “mashables” that game devotees have created. Still curious? There’s also this:

Beyond the STEM subjects, Jennifer finds Minecraft to be a rich and engaging subject for writing assignments. “Students get passionate when writing about a game they love.” Minecraft also encourages kids to be creative and solve problems.

Jennifer and her students aren’t alone in their love of Minecraft, as teachers everywhere are discovering the learning opportunities that lie within the game’s vast virtual world. In fact, the Google Quantum A.I. Lab team has partnered with MinecraftEdu and Caltech to create qCraft , a modpack (a collection of modifications that players download from a single link) that enables students to experiment with quantum mechanics inside of the popular sandbox game. Now that’s serious business!

Two versions of Minecraft are available:

Minecraft Pocket Edition is geared for students in Grades 3-8 (available in iOS and Android).
Minecraft Edu is designed for classroom use (Grades 3-12) and has editions for Windows, Mac and Linux.

Each version offers benefits and a few drawbacks. Graphite (Common Sense Media’s site for teachers) has come up with a helpful list of the pros and cons of each version. Parents can get in on the action as well, especially if their kids already play the pocket edition or play Minecraft at school. Visit the game’s website to learn about upgrades and add-ons, and check out the online community and forums for project ideas. Start building your child’s skills, knowledge, and imagination while you bond with them.

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