Local schools use Minecraft to teach problem solving, community

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BENNINGTON >> Across the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, teachers and staff are utilizing an unexpected new educational tool: Minecraft.

Minecraft, which began as a project of independent Swedish programmer Markus Persson and grew into one of the most popular games in the world, with more than 30 million players across multiple platforms, is a sandbox game in which players build structures out of 3D cubes, explore randomly generated worlds, and fight monsters. However, educators across the country have recently realized that the game offers many opportunities for teaching real world skills in a way that is appealing to students.

Sally Bisaccio, SVSU's technology integration specialist, has worked with teachers and other administrators to bring a specialized version of the game, called MinecraftEDU, into the schools. In this version of the software, the teacher has complete control over every aspect of the game world, including whether players can fight one another, whether or not there are monsters, and whether players have "health" and "hunger" bars. It also gives the teachers special abilities, such as the option to freeze students in place or teleport them across the map, take away individuals' chat privileges, or even to become invisible.

At Mount Anthony Union Middle School, the MOSAIC after-school program runs a Minecraft club, and at Shaftsbury and Woodford elementary schools, students actually spend about an hour a week in the game world, and are working on creating their own in-game communities.

In Shaftsbury on Wednesday, Bisaccio and fourth grade teacher Colette Klein were working with the students on a "Redstone Challenge," in which the each student formed a plan for a redstone device with a student from the other fourth grade class, taught by Susan Phelps. Redstone is a substance in the game that acts similarly to simple electronic circuits, and can be used to program automatic doors, retracting bridges, lighting and more. On YouTube, there are examples of particularly clever Minecraft players who have even built working calculators and simple computers. Students had half an hour to turn their designs into reality, and while many struggled along the way, Bisaccio said that was a critical part of the learning process.

"The first time isn't necessarily going to work," Bisaccio told the students, "the second time isn't necessarily going to work. The fiftieth time may not work. The only way to make it work is to try and try again."

Many students immediately saw flaws in their designs that they hadn't realized during the planning stages, and tried to find solutions. By the end of the 30 minutes, only a few students had managed to make their devices work, including one girl who had made a mechanical gate that could open and close with the flick of a lever, and a boy who had designed a garbage disposal device that used pistons to push discarded items into a flow of water that deposited them outside of the game map.

The redstone challenge, said Klein, is scheduled for 3-4 weeks, but the class will continue using Minecraft every week even after it is finished. The students in her class have worked to form a community, with each student having their own home.

"Students have chosen occupations," said Bisaccio, "Farmers, hunters, builders, even a librarian who keeps track of the recipes, etc."

Bisaccio said that students have learned how to work together to achieve goals, and how to be polite in the in-game chat. Students also have to learn to follow rules imposed not by the game, but by their teachers, including not to go into others' houses without permission. Recently, Bisaccio turned health and hunger on in the world, meaning that students will need to work together to produce enough food so that nobody starves. One industrious student had already set up a store, stocked with produce grown at the farm behind her house.

At the middle school club, which runs in eight-week sessions, students all share a world, but often participate in challenges designed by Bisaccio, with in-game rewards. On Monday, Bisaccio gave the students a stock of wood, cobblestone, sand, coal, and seeds, as well as certain tools, such as buckets and axes, and gave them 20 minutes simply to be creative using only those items. Students built houses, complete with rooftop gardens, fountains, and balconies. One student even made a waterslide. Every student who participated received three "diamonds" as a reward.

"I think a lot of these kids are more likely to come to school on days that Minecraft club meets," said MOSAIC program director Chris Maguire, "it's that important to them."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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