Parents: Do not underestimate Minecraft

Playing Minecraft was nothing new for the 21 Southeast students taking part in the Minecraft Engineering Challenge workshop at Greenbush on Monday. For those unfamiliar with the game, Minecraft is a computerized version of LEGOS or the old fashioned Erecter Set, where players can build and explore their creation, and share it online with friends.

“When I saw my kids playing it (at home), I thought it was a waste of time – ‘man, you’re rotting your brain,’” admits Michael McCambridge, the Director of Student Enrichment at Greenbush.  “You learn through play, you learn through opportunities, but we don’t realize Minecraft is educational.”

Like playing with blocks, many kids simply build things in Minecraft just to knock them down, in the wide variety of ways the game offers.

But McCambridge said after learning more about the game, he and others are beginning to realize with the right guidance it can be a valuable educational tool. As an example, students build a structure in Minecraft, they discuss it with their teachers, and discuss what kind of careers would go into that structure.

“The way education is happening right now, the minds that our students have are light years ahead of us just because of technology. Before, if we didn’t have an answer we had to hope somebody knew it or hope we had the right letter of encyclopedia. Now it’s ‘just Google it’. As a teacher, if I just gave a student facts, nowadays, an iPad or iPhone can replace me; but if I give them tasks that they have to use that technology, then they have to utilize 21st century skills and collaborate appropriately or come to a consensus on ‘this is what we’re going to do’ or come to a consensus ‘this is where we’re going to do it, or ‘this is how we’re going to do it’”.

McCambridge said that the creativity Minecraft allows students to learn through play, but the “common sense” portion is missing so educators need to be able to steer the students in the right direction.

Greenbush has used Minecraft for years in their camps. In fact, there has been so much interest in the Minecraft camps at Greenbush, they’re now dabbling in using it in their workshops geared towards school workshops. Greenbush has their own servers for Minecraft, which allows multiple users to be on the same map, and the version they use is a little different than the online version students are used to at home. There is little free reign where they can do whatever they want, but most are familiar with the game, making it easier to provide them challenges.

While the Southeast students had previously built homes, castles, statues, and one had built a football stadium, staff at Greenbush challenged them to build something more intricate – a traditional oriental gate.  The combination of two towers and intricate design across the top made for a surprisingly difficult challenge, even for some of the more experienced Minecraft players.

After some trial and error, and a lot of talking amongst themselves, students slowly figured out the best way to build the gates.

But then came the real challenge: working together in multiplayer mode to build a city.  Each table of students took responsibility for building structures of their own choosing: a home, a store, a library, a police department (with a jail), a skyscraper, the White House, and even an amusement park.

While there were no zombies, to the disappointment of the students, the students were put on the same map, and had to figure out for themselves where they were going to build their structures, without interference from the adults. McCambridge said allowing the students to argue/discuss something as simple as structure location is an easy way for them to improve their communication skills.

“It’s there, but we’re not sitting there lecturing them about it,” he said.  “We want to do things the kids want to do – educate them on their turf. What do kids want to do? They want to move around, they want to talk, they want to touch things, they want to use technology. What do we tell them to do in school? Sit down, don’t talk, don’t touch things, we’re already taking them out (losing them). So if we can educate them on their turf we win, and they win too.”

“It’s like they worked learning into playing a video game and it’s not like one of those cheap ones where you learn what 2 plus 2 is,” said Southeast 7th grader Blayn Renn. “You can build houses. You can do survivor mode and have to find out ways to survive at home.”

Renn said he spent two years off and on building Kaufman Stadium in Minecraft.

“The first thing I worked on was the field, because I didn’t know how long I would be able to stand it, and then I did the outline of the park, then I built some of the concession stands, seating, and the skyboxes,” Renn said.

McCambridge said the key for learning is the focus on “why” – explaining the relevance of the challenges, and letting the students struggle in finding the solutions.

“If I’m a football player for instance, and on a certain running play, if I’m supposed to block this guy but I don’t know why I’m blocking him, well, I’m probably not going to do it as well,” McCambridge said. “But if I do know why – if I don’t block this guy my running back is going to get knocked down – this is a key block – now I understand why.”

“We’re educating Generation Y. They want to move around. They want to talk. They want to touch things. They want technology.”

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