Laura Hobbs, Carly Stevens, and Jackie Hartley, Science Hunters
Building volcanoes, caves, and other features in an “open-world” computer game is an engaging way to teach the next generation about Earth.
Imagine yourself in a world where everything is made up of cubes. Colorful blocks represent rocks, trees, water, and animals. An erupting volcano produces blocks of flowing lava. A cave contains cubes of iron and gold ore.
Sound familiar? This is the world of Minecraft, a hugely popular “open-world” construction-based video game in which players can move around freely and build virtual creations by “mining” and placing textured blocks with different properties. You can build elaborate cities and ships—even the Eiffel Tower or Tolkien’s Minas Morgul. You can also build a working computer that can perform calculations.
But what if you could build your own Earth features and explore the real-life science behind them?
This is what we do at Science Hunters, an outreach program at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. In the blocky world of Minecraft, we task players with building dinosaurs, rockets, volcanoes, caves, and even whole planets. From seeds to space, they can explore and relate the processes they interact with in the game to the real world around them.
In workshops run by Science Hunters, children use Minecraft to gain skills in creative thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and communication, all while exploring complex scientific concepts through experiences that are simply not possible in everyday life. How else can you play with molten lava?
Each Science Hunters workshop involves a theme, such as volcanoes or oceans. First, away from computers, we introduce the topic with hands-on demonstrations of real-world examples.
Water, lava, and obsidian play a role in advancing objectives in Minecraft’s survival mode game play, so many students come to sessions with Minecraft-related knowledge of these block types. For example, water and lava blocks in Minecraft flow downward and spread out—just like they would under Earth’s gravity—and vegetation may be set alight by lava. We take that baseline knowledge and help the student go steps farther.
In real life, obsidian—volcanic glass—can form when lava comes in contact with water and cools instantly, so that crystals do not have time to develop. In Minecraft’s creative mode, obsidian can form when you take a bucket of lava from your inventory and cast it over the ground. The lava mounds into a tiny hill; the “source” and hottest part of the lava flow, from which the mound is “erupting,” is the very first lava block you placed down from your lava bucket. Cast a bucket of water—also found in your inventory—near that source of lava, and if the water hits it, that source block will turn into obsidian. Other blocks in the lava flow, moving outward from this source block, are coded to be not as hot; these blocks will solidify as the water runs over them, but they do not create obsidian. Instead, they turn into blocks that represent crystalline lava rocks.
These behaviors reflect real-world geologic processes, which gives us an opportunity to talk with the children about the differences between crystalline rocks and volcanic glass, crystal sizes and growth rates, subaerial and subaqueous cooling, and properties of dynamic flows and solid rocks. We also talk about the impact of the volcano they build on the ecosystem surrounding it and villages nearby.
We discuss all these things while the students dig, build, and play. Each session revolves around a Minecraft challenge. In the volcano theme, we encourage students to create volcanoes complete with plumbing, eruptions, lava-water interactions, and external structures that need protecting from hazards when they erupt.
The World in Blocks
We use a version of Minecraft specifically designed for educational use, which means that we can ensure that game play functionality is appropriate for the classroom. Operating the game in its creative mode is key: This mode gives players an unlimited number and very wide range of blocks to build with. It also means that players don’t have to keep themselves alive in the game, as they would in its survival mode. Another perk is that players can fly around in their virtual world.
This version and mode open a wealth of possibilities to explore science through virtual creation. Think of it like playing Legos, except that you have infinite blocks with dynamic properties in all the colors of the rainbow. Just imagine what you could build!
Through Science Hunters, we invite students to imagine with us. In addition to the class on volcanoes, we run a variety of other sessions, each focused on a different theme: dinosaurs, caves and minerals, rockets, planets, mining, ice and snow, and oceans, to name a few.
For example, we guide children through dinosaur and pterosaur classifications and use scientifically accurate toys as well as templates of real dinosaur footprints to show sizes and scales of dinosaur features. The students then use this information to build a model of a Mesozoic creature, either reconstructing a known example or designing their own.
In a different session, we show children a variety of mineral samples, discuss the differences between stalagmites and stalactites, and then set them to work to dig down and construct their own caves. Going extraterrestrial, we show students models of the structure of the solar system and of individual planets. Then, using a planet-themed Minecraft world and a resource pack that enable a virtual space environment, students can build their own planets from core to crust.
Minecraft can be used as a teaching tool to construct more than just natural features. It can help teach students how the built environment—buildings, agriculture, transportation routes—influences nature.
For example, how are we going to produce enough healthful food in the future, as our population expands and builds on the very farmland we need to produce that extra food? Through one of our classes, children inspect raw, unprocessed real-world samples of foodstuffs represented in Minecraft. Then they design and build their space-saving solutions to this dilemma in the game, making use of the game’s crops, which respond to sources of light, water, and fertilizer as they grow.
In other sessions, we give students a tour of Lancaster University’s own wind turbine. We examine its energy production through statistics and the turbine’s online live data feed to demonstrate generation and use of renewable energy. Then we ask the children to design and build renewable energy production mechanisms. This can be a stand-alone task or an expansion of our exploration of town planning, in which children build their own cities, including power networks, onto grid systems
Built environment lessons can also envision scenarios off our world. After leading students through a discussion on what they’d need if they were to live on another planet, we turn students loose in a premade barren Minecraft landscape, reminiscent of Mars or the Moon, to design their own space station.
Minecraft contains a range of representative ecological biomes, so we created instructional packets containing booklets, posters, and stickers that we sent out across the United Kingdom (with the support of the British Ecological Society) to guide families through ecological explorations on their own time at home. We supply an introduction to biomes and their associated animals, plants, habitats, and foods, all clearly linked to the equivalent features in Minecraft, with building challenges to complete in Minecraft along the way.
We also provide a series of experiments and identification activities. For example, we give families seeds to grow cacti and food crops found in Minecraft, along with fertilizer to demonstrate how, just like in the game world, real plants can get a growth boost when fertilizer is added. We also provide some wood samples of tree species present in the game, linked to information about the biomes in which those trees are found.
Our workshops also investigate flora and fauna through Minecraft, delving into how organisms adapt to their environments. We first experiment, outside of the game, with analogies such as insulated versus noninsulated beakers of water to explore heat retention and loss, to which animals adapt through features such as fur coats and large ears. Then we ask students to use these concepts to build an animal that would flourish in the Minecraft biome they are playing in.
Cold biomes are particularly useful as a basis for discussing how snow and ice form, why igloos are not cold inside, and why every snowflake is unique. In our sessions, students can roam around snowy Minecraft plains building igloos and designing their own intricate models of radially symmetric snowflakes.
Geosciences Through Gaming
Science Hunters activities take place in schools, at public events such as community festivals, and at a regular on-campus club offered to local children with autism. We work with children of all ages, with a core audience of around 7–11 years, in several different areas of the United Kingdom. Our team encourages children to play in pairs to support their development of social communication and teamwork skills.
Sessions and content are highly adaptable to the ages and needs of the children taking part; we may be working with 4-year-olds who have been in school for only a few months, highly able students, or high school students with special educational needs.
Minecraft is an ideal medium for science outreach and engagement, as it is generally very popular with children. Lane and Yi  described it as one of the most widely used and important games of the current generation. Just a mention of the game draws children’s attention and interest.
Learning by Playing
Since the program’s inception in 2014, feedback collected from all areas of the project has been overwhelmingly positive. Children appreciate the opportunity to explore new topics, participate in hands-on demonstrations, and ask in-depth scientific questions to people with relevant scientific knowledge and expertise. They tell us that using Minecraft makes the session fun and different from their usual lessons and helps them to understand the topics. And when we ask them to tell us something that they’ve learned, every one of them can do it. We’ve even heard “This is the best day of my life!”
Parents and teachers often tell us that during Science Hunters sessions, children who often find it difficult to participate in standard lessons are engaged and absorbed in the session. We’ve seen enthusiastic teamwork from children whom we’ve been told have a history of interacting poorly with others. Some of these students even high-five their partners at the end of the lesson. In addition, we’ve found that through using Minecraft, children can both demonstrate what they’ve learned within the session and, by consolidating their learning through the game, remember it later.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Our use of Minecraft presents a novel and inclusive way of inspiring interest in geosciences in a new generation. The irony here doesn’t escape us: The virtual world of Minecraft allows us to bring the real world into the classroom. It allows us to teach students about the outdoors from indoors in a way that wouldn’t be possible outside. And our program gives students the tools and support they need to build their understanding of the outdoor real world, block by virtual block.
For more information, access to our program, and ideas about how to structure Minecraft-based geoscience learning for your students, your children, or yourself, visit our website or contact us directly.
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