Minecrafting the Classroom

Minecraft Ancient World Eric Walker
Minecraft “Ancient City”. Image by Eric Walker.

I fell off my horse. I should have chosen more carefully — the magnificent dark brown and black horses were too wild, and kicked me off right away. The brown and white one seemed tame enough; I climbed into its back and we rode to the beach. I carried one block of cobblestone, a pane of glass, and a yellow flower. Upon arrival, I chose a spot. I was ready to start building my house.

It was a peaceful day, chosen out of a “peaceful” setting, in a randomly-generated world of the Minecraft game. Over 11 million gamers play Minecraft. Together they create worlds and overcome challenges.


Education gamification

Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal vouches for an exciting concept: the powerful motivations that drive us to play games should motivate us in off-game, real-world scenarios. For example, encouraging a community to recycle, or persuading more students to learn science. According to McGonigal, games have such a strong influence because they:

  • provoke curiosity, awe and wonder with fantastic scenarios and worlds
  • empower individuals to develop and contribute
  • strengthen the social fabric — players collaborate and join forces (for example, they build together or form teams to fight the enemy)
  • create meaning — players work towards an heroic challenge of epic proportions (e.g., slaying a dragon a saving a kingdom)

If only we experienced all those feelings every time we stepped into a classroom.

Some people believe using a game could help us get there. The use of games in science education is not new. Among a slew of examples is the initiative by game company Valve called “Teach with Portals” – leveraged on their game Portal 2. In a laboratory classroom, kids solve science challenges to activate portals and travel between worlds. Worlds may even have different physical properties. In one challenge, students have to fill a room with gas particles to equalize its pressure — a lesson in ideal gas law. A community of teachers is already creating their own “Teach with Portals” lessons and sharing them online. It was reported that 1.3 million users downloaded the education-based Portal game, and that was only three days after the launch.

Kids are not only playing science games, but they are using science to build their own games. The National STEM video game challenge was kick started by the White House and President Obama in 2010. It promotes STEM learning among middle and high school students by encouraging them to create their own video game. In this yearly competition, students hone their computer programming skills with the help of teachers and mentors. In 2013, 4000 kids submitted their homemade games.

Minecraft Tragedy of the Commons Dan Short
A Minecraft student player is ready to chop down a tree inside a “Tragedy of the Commons scenario. Image by Dan Short via source.

“If a lake is generated in a snow biome, it will freeze.” Using Minecraft for teaching science

Recently, Minecraft has joined the ranks of pro-education and pro-creativity tools. Its Lego-style, pixelated interface may look crude, but this block-building game gives players unlimited freedom to create. As evidence, Minecraft players show videos of their creations, which can be as fantastic as a replica of Star Trek Enterprise or a Beetlejuice rollercoaster. Besides creating, users can also collaborate and build worlds together.

In the article “teaching scientific concepts using a virtual world”, Dr. Dan Short lists ways to use Minecraft in the classroom. In a biology lesson, for example, Dr. Short asks that players build a human body: block-shaped cells connected by arteries, Fantastic Voyage-style. He focuses on ecology and environmental science, so many of his Minecraft lessons involve building a community with limited available resources. The following is a game version of classic example Hardin’s tragedy of the commons (where a population exhausts an area’s natural resources):

“I built a self-contained world map inside a dome containing only trees… In round 1 the students are told to collect as much wood from the forested area as possible. Being a ‘commons’ type area, the space is very quickly laid to waste, which illustrates Harding’s principle. In round 2, students are allowed to plant new trees and bound their harvest areas with fences, in which only they are allowed to farm. This leads to a more sustainable production of lumber.”

Perhaps this is the closest way kids can live science: by experiencing environmental destruction, safely, inside a game scenario like Minecraft.

Minecraft has its own wiki packed with ideas for the classroom. Some suggest few extra school uses for Minecraft, such as visiting famous buildings (e.g. the Coliseum), or boosting SAT scores. Minecraft Teacher Joel Levin created an entire world atop Minecraft packed with educational challenges: MinecraftEdu is embedded with puzzles and other activities for students. It is available for download, so schools can use it in their classrooms (other Minecraft worlds for teaching can be downloaded as well).

My Minecraft house has a view to the ocean and is decorated with flowers, but there’s no rooftop yet. I’ll keep in mind my local resources as I build one. Perhaps I’ll enlist other gamers and we come up with a sustainable version of the Enterprise.

Have you used a game to teach or learn science? 

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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