Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Exploring Real Life with Minecraft

If you spend any time around young people, you've likely heard plenty about Minecraft, the video game that kids can't seem to get enough of. Although too much screen time is to be avoided, many parents don't mind Minecraft because it rewards creativity and critical thinking. Ty Hollett, a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, is working on a project that makes Minecraft even more virtuous. 

Hollett has created a "makerspace" called Studio NPL at the downtown Nashville Public Library. Using concepts from Minecraft, he is encouraging young people to re-envision a housing community in East Nashville. Hollett's clever program got us thinking about ways to take advantage of kids' obsession with Minecraft. We love the idea of using Minecraft to explore urban planning, but why stop there? Themes in the game can serve as a wonderful platform for introducing and exploring all kinds of other real-world topics. Creative teachers and parents will no doubt have plenty of their own ideas; here are a few of ours:

Cartography – In adventure mode, players can explore "maps" created by other players. Navigating around the map and exploring the virtual world is tremendous fun for young people. Kids will likely be more interested in drawing a map of their own Minecraft world than in looking at a map of Spain. Encourage them to draw lines of latitude and longitude and a compass rose to learn about coordinates and cardinal directions in a format that is personally meaningful to them. The geography of the real world will make much more sense in history class.

Architecture – Players are able to build anything they can imagine, so why not challenge them to re-create some famous structures? This is the perfect opportunity to discuss international landmarks. You can even get into physics by discussing how certain shapes, like the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, lend themselves well to distributing force.

Internet Research – What better way to develop web literacy than purpose-driven inquiry? Minecraft doesn't come with instructions, so players have to figure things out in one of two ways: 1) trial and error, or 2) Internet research. The uninitiated would be stunned by the number of instructional videos and articles on the web. Because finding tricks to help them succeed feels relevant, kids will experiment with search terms until they become masters at navigating the wealth of information online. And many who resist reading a novel will pore through hundreds of words to glean information that feels critically important.

Geology --  As the name implies, mining is important in Minecraft. Players must create pickaxes, first out of wood--which is the only available material, initially--to mine minerals in order to build things. Some kids may be surprised to learn the realistic information about minerals and their properties that is built into Minecraft. Just as on Earth, the most common element in Minecraft is iron, and one can mine iron ore in order to smelt it and turn it into a stronger pickaxe. (Yes, Minecraft covers smelting.) It gets better: Pickaxes made of different materials behave the way they would in the real world. A gold pickaxe gives a player bragging rights but doesn't do a great job of mining hard minerals because it is too malleable. A diamond pickaxe, on the other hand, can mine even the toughest minerals, like obsidian.

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