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The Minecraft Cell: Biology Meets Game-Based Learning

Dan Bloom

9th Grade Science Teacher from New York, NY
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Using Minecraft as an Educational Tool

Joel: Minecraft is a video game that has a lot to offer. At its core, it's very open-ended. If you want to have an adventure, you can have an adventure. If you want to build something, you can build something. If you want to talk to your friends, you can talk to your friends. If you want to kill monsters, you can kill monsters. So the game appeals to a lot of people. It makes a lot of sense to take a game that is already fun, that is proven to be enjoyable to kids, and try to find a way to bring it into the classroom.

Lauren: So look here, Minecraft EDU launcher and that should be it.

Boy: Oh.

Boy: Imagine how long this took Brandon to make.

Boy: I know. Oh! He just drops you from all the way up there.

Joel: You know, my school as well as many others have been struggling with the issue of how to teach digital citizenship, which is internet ethics, online safety, privacy, research. I mean, it's everything, because as our kids were getting into middle school and high school we had a lot of frankly ugly incidents happen. And so, you know, the school's administration, along with the computer department, decided we really need to start teaching this concepts earlier. You know, we're going to treat the game world as part of the classroom. It is a classroom, it's just in the digital space. Almost every single kid finally kind of came around and sort of got it.

Teacher: Go ahead and let's start off by getting in, following the instructions that are up onto the board. Yeah, you are students, pick your avatar.

Anthony: Pixel Pushers as a student project here at the ETC is working with Minecraft EDU to develop a series of software features for their software. So our programmers have been working on a quiz block and a lesson review tool to include in the Minecraft EDU software while we're also working on researching how and what you can best teach with Minecraft. You can really teach a wide array of things that aren't immediately obvious.

Joel: The kids have to think it's fun, otherwise what's the point? There's plenty of educational games out there and frankly, very, very few of them have ever been very satisfying for me. I never wanted to use them in my classroom, because it smells like school.

Make sure you're using the right material. Make sure you're not using gravel for the parts that are in between the pillars there, because the gravel will fall. Let's check out group two, oh nice, you've finished, you're almost done with one of the hardest shapes, good job.

Anthony: In our research, we started out asking, "What can Minecraft teach?" As we actually started play testing with students, we found that that might be the wrong question and that it's more interesting to ask how can Minecraft teach?

Dave: The virtual world of Minecraft I think is fun and powerful, you know, for these kids and I think they get it in a way that I think some of their teachers don't sometimes.

Anthony: I think the most important thing for someone coming to Minecraft from an educational perspective is to just play the game. Just get a feel for how the game works and then perhaps even more importantly, let the students play the game.

Joel: You have to think about where twenty-first century kids are living. I mean, they come here in school, but they're texting each other on the way home. And then they're on Facebook and then they're playing games together. It's all a continuum; they don't separate the conversations that they have typed into Minecraft with the ones that they have in the lunchroom.

Joel: There's such excitement around this game. Getting that excitement into schools all over the world. The more voices we have coming up with idea and creating content and sharing content, the better.

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  • Director / Camera / Editor: JR Sheetz
  • Associate Producer, Edutopia: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video, Edutopia: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Special Thanks: MinecraftEdu, Education Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, Quest to Learn, Elizabeth Forward School District

This video was originally produced by Institute of Play, and was made possible through generous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Minecraft, the popular sandbox game, is beloved by educators for its use as a learning tool. It enables students to explore, create and imagine in a completely different way than they could ever do in a traditional classroom. The beauty of the game is in the way it unleashes the creativity of both students and teachers.

But for Minecraft novices like me, it's hard to know exactly where to begin unleashing all that creativity. If you're just getting started with Minecraft, it might be helpful to use the game in an activity of your own design. That way, you familiarize yourself with the powerful tools for educators available in MinecraftEdu by building a virtual world for the class to explore before you jump into to using the game as a creative tool for your students.

A student at Quest to Learn playing Minecraft.

This semester, I used Minecraft for the first time in my ninth grade science class at Quest to Learn. I decided to incorporate the game into my curriculum to meet a specific learning goal: to aid in students' understanding of our DNA extraction lab. In this lab, students practice a step-by-step technique that involves adding certain chemicals to a mixture of cells in order to break apart the cellular components and isolate the DNA molecules.

Working with a game designer from Institute of Play at my school, we created a valuable cell model in Minecraft that could mimic the real properties of a cell, and the real interactions between a cell membrane and the different chemicals used to extract DNA, which students could experiment with in the game.

If you're considering using Minecraft in your classroom, here are four steps to walk you through incorporating the game into your curriculum.

Step 1: Define the Learning Goals

The reason I chose to use Minecraft as a learning tool was to aid in the students' understanding of our DNA extraction lab. When I did this lab with my students in the past, they walked away with very little understanding as to why they followed those steps and what exactly was happening at a cellular level.

My vision was to create a cell model in Minecraft that students could explore and manipulate. This pre-lab activity would allow them to use different "chemical tools" to break down the various parts of the cell and, in the end, identify a list of materials needed to complete the DNA extraction lab.

Step 2: Create the Mechanics and Build the Virtual World

Though I am a novice to Minecraft, I was able to work closely with a game designer, Claudio, to help create a realistic cell model. Using the MinecraftEdu educator tools, Claudio renamed the Minecraft tools with different chemical names. He also figured out how to make some of the materials susceptible to certain chemical tools, while being impenetrable to others. Once this mechanic was ironed out, we were very quickly able to create the world of the cell.

In the end, we had a single-player, immersive world in which students could explore the inside of a cell while using chemical tools to break through to the DNA. They were using their content knowledge to find the DNA, and they were figuring out which chemicals were necessary to dissolve the components of the cell.

Step 3: Focus the Exploration

I created a student handout to serve as a guide for focusing their exploration. In addition to providing setup instructions to start that exploration, the handout included a checklist for exploring the cell, and questions for students to answer as they interacted with the different chemical tools in the cell.

The purpose of the student handout was to provide them with some sort of direction as they explored, and also to point out connections between the game and our class content that they may not have noticed on their own. We added extra organelles to the model, and we even created a realistic cell membrane that mimics the lipid bilayer found in real membranes. In addition to preparing the students for the upcoming lab activity, this game also served as review for our cells unit.

Step 4: Assess Progress Toward Learning Goals

The questions on the handout also provided a way for me to assess students. I was able to see if they could make connections back to course content (review) while also getting a clear picture of whether they were able to meet the learning goal and identify the chemicals needed for the lab. By the end of the activity, they had a clear understanding of the changes the cell goes through during the DNA extraction lab, and when we actually completed the lab, the students felt comfortable talking about it and could successfully explain why we used each chemical.

The activity was a resounding success. Engagement was at an all-time high. Students who felt weak in science class were able to approach the subject in a way that felt comfortable for them. Some students who were new to Minecraft struggled in the beginning, but quickly picked it up after a brief tutorial from a Minecraft regular.

My students ask me often when we will use Minecraft again. I already have two projects in the works, both involving the use of Minecraft as a creative tool so that students are actually creating something of their own that's unique. Stay tuned to learn more about these projects!

For further resources, check out the webinar series from the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media & Learning Research Hub and Institute of Play's webinar about how we've used Minecraft at our school.

Minecraft Resources on the Web

Please share your own classroom adventures with Minecraft in the comments section below.

Intrigued by game-based learning, but not sure where to begin? Edutopia's new Made With Play series takes a look at game-like learning principles in action and commercial games in real classrooms -- and offers tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice. Get more resources for game-based learning here.

Videos made possible through generous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Made With Play series is a co-production with Institute of Play.

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Made with Play: Using Games for Learning
Game-like learning principles in action, commercial games in real classrooms, and tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Knowclue's picture
Middle School Tech Teacher

Sadly... adults had all the fun on this project. :( How much more learning would have taken place if only they had entrusted the students with the task of actually building the simulation? When playing on their own, even very young children are capable of constructing highly complex structures in Minecraft. Why aren't we tapping into those skills when we co-op their game for school? Before we use their game to "teach" our content, perhaps we need to learn from students what makes this game so compelling. Understanding that could be the key to helping us rethink traditional models of teaching in favor of designing spaces for learning. iMHO

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I showed this to my 7th grader and he said, "That's cool...but it would be cooler if there were zombie pigs."

I'm not sure how that fits in, but it seemed worth sharing. :-)

I'm also a novice- I'd learn faster, but every time I try my kids stand over my shoulder "coaching" me and pointing out my mistakes until I give up and hand over the device, defeated. I wonder if there's a way to do this that leaned into the expertise of the students more? Or is this enough of a push as it is- it's always hard to measure what's the right balance between messy problem and teacher structure when you're talking about another teacher's classroom.

Thanks for sharing!

slmUSA's picture

I can see both sides of this: giving reins over to your students could result in more minecraft building and less content learning. On the other hand, a lot of front end work could yield some very excited learners. The teacher would have to give a rubric with checkpoints to help the learning reach learning targets. There could be "homework" involved, especially for students who need to learn how to use minecraft first. I'd love to know how to use this to help students learn foreign languages. Anyone?

PrincipalCross's picture
Principal at Legacy Academy iSchool

I had the opportunity to add a Minecraft class to Legacy Academy and it was immensely impactful. Combine this with 3D printing and you have some amazing opportunities. Thanks for the read, building these cells is an amazing learning experience.

Lindsey H.'s picture

Man! I would love to see one of our LearnToMod students build a cell simulation in Minecraft! What a cool project that would be... I imagine it would be very difficult for students to build that kind of simulation without the proper tools. They would need to learn how to code. But I bet some of our LearnToMod students could do it!

Joe Dillon's picture

It is an important distinction to me that the teachers designed and built the cell simulation for students to explore. When youth everywhere design and build complex cityscapes, and circuits in Minecraft and then share this work on the Internet in blogs and videos, it seems a missed opportunity for teachers to do the designing and building and limit the students to touring and experimenting in the simulated cell. A Google search on "Minecraft cell city" or "Minecraft cell analogy" reveals literally thousands of examples of youth doing this work. Minecraft is first and foremost a building tool. The best efforts to leverage the game for learning will invite students to design and build in the game platform they love.

Igor Mochernyak's picture

I'm a large fan of Lego. My son and that i have spent hours building the model on the box so taking it apart and creating no matter else we have a tendency to needed by rearranging the elements. Minecraft provides children an equivalent artistic freedom, however it's easier on your checking account. Plus, you will ne'er tread on a loose piece barefoot within the dark.

If you haven't vie or seen it, Minecraft could be a terribly cubic world, i.e. everything is constructed from blocks. the bottom is formed from blocks, trees square measure blocks, and even your character avatar is incredibly cubic . You get progress within the game by scavenging or mining blocks of assorted materials like stone, wood, lava, etc. you employ these because the basis for your creations, or mix them in "recipes" to make a lot of advanced materials, tools and objects.

Some of the items Minecraft players have engineered square measure actually staggering: huge vehicles, involved skyscrapers, operating analog computers, and even the complete country of Danmark precisely to scaleHow to Draw Minecraft

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Spectacular post which I will be passing on. This article addresses one of the most difficult things for teachers when using technology, which is the learning curve. You go a long way toward leveling the playing field, which I can't wait to share.

imeeserrano's picture

Hi Dan Bloom! I am a teacher in Grade 10 and a parent also. Minecraft is my daughter's favorite game and I was surprised that you were able to use this game a tool in learning one of the topics in biology. And I find it very interesting. Can you give me some tips on how to use Minecraft in plate tectonics? Your reply will be a great help to me. Thank you.

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