Using Minecraft to engage children with science learning

Minecraft is beloved of thousands of teens and pre-teens across the country, but it seems to have a particular fascination for  young people who have Asperger's and similar conditions.

The power of Minecraft is now being harnessed to help children with SEND and other barriers to accessing Higher Education. Dr Laura Hobbs coordinates the Science Hunters project at Lancaster University, which engages children with science using Minecraft, including a fortnightly Minecraft club with the National Autistic Society.

Laura is a science communicator with a research background in volcanology, who specialises in making science learning more accessible to under-served groups. She's written for us today all about her project.

Using Minecraft to engage children with science learning

Science Hunters is an outreach project based in Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC), Lancaster University. We use Minecraft to engage children with science and help them learn about topics not usually covered in science lessons, based around the research taking place in LEC. Minecraft is a very popular computer game, which is ‘open world’ – players can move freely around the virtual world of the game. They create constructions by breaking and placing textured blocks, so it’s similar to Lego, but on a computer and with more options available.

We operate the game in ‘creative’ mode which gives players unlimited blocks to build with, and we use a version specially produced for educational use to ensure that children are playing in a safe environment.

Science Hunters has a strong focus on Widening Participation, which means we’re about opening up learning opportunities to children who may face barriers, such as disability, low family income or limited family experience of going to university, to accessing Higher Education. Within this, we specifically offer sessions and activities to children with Special Educational Needs.

We do this by delivering sessions in primary and secondary schools, and specialist schools and units, and running a regular Minecraft Club on our university campus in collaboration with the Lancaster and Morecambe branch of the National Autistic Society.

In schools, we cover scientific areas including volcanoes, food security and animal habitats, and briefly introduce the chosen topic via interactive discussion at the start of the session alongside some relevant hands-on activities – for example showing some real volcanic rocks or unusual foodstuffs available in Minecraft but rarely seen in day-to-day life. We then ask children to build something related in the game; this is where they get to consolidate and explore what they’ve just learn about, and express their ideas and understanding.

A volcano built in Minecraft during one of our school visits
A volcano built in Minecraft during one of our school visits

At Minecraft Club, we follow a similar format but as we meet regularly and usually see the same children across several sessions, we can cover a wider variety of topics, link to cultural events, extend topics over several sessions and do our best to meet any requests for themes.

In all of our sessions, the direction the builds take is very much down to the children, as we give them a broad framework to work within and encourage them use their imaginations, understanding and creativity to produce something that is very uniquely theirs.

A pumpkin built for Halloween during one of our Minecraft Club sessions
A pumpkin built for Halloween during one of our Minecraft Club sessions

Minecraft is a hugely effective tool for teaching scientific concepts in this informal manner, and inspiring interest and enthusiasm; its popularity alone can attract children who may otherwise have been reluctant to participate or are disengaged from standard school science lessons. They may have extensive experience with the game, giving them a sense of expertise and ownership, or conversely may have never tried it before or only used it on a particular IT device, in which case we offer them the opportunity to try something new.

Minecraft also allows children to explore science topics by comparing what happens in the game with real-world processes. For example, while we can’t bring molten lava or a volcano into the classroom, we can simulate what happens when lava flows over landscapes, or water and lava come into contact using the relevant materials in Minecraft, and show a real-life example of the rock that forms for comparison.

Within the game, children can safely experiment with water and lava for themselves, giving context to their learning and allowing them to explore different scenarios. Feedback from teachers, parents and children tells us that this opportunity for practical, involved exploration of the processes we describe in our introduction aids not only in understanding what’s happening, but also remembering what’s been learnt.

The feedback we’ve received also indicates strong positive influences on the communication skills and social confidence of children with SEN. As a result, researchers in Lancaster University’s Psychology Department are undertaking research to investigate social-communication development of children with autism playing together at our Minecraft Club.

All of the provision described above is fully funded, so there’s no charge involved. If you’d like to find out more about Science Hunters or any of the associated activities, please see our webpage, visit us on Facebook or drop us an email and we’ll be more than happy to discuss the project further.

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Tania Tirraoro

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