VICKSBURG, MI — When Austin Roberson sat down at the computer and fired up Minecraft, he was not at home playing video games during summer vacation. Roberson was in a classroom on a Thursday afternoon at Vicksburg High School.

Students enrolled in Intro to Design, one of many engineering-type courses offered by Greg Mills, are using a video game most play for fun as educational software in their classrooms.

Using the building game, students created a virtual tour of their entire high school, including classroom spaces and the building's exterior. Their next project is to create a tour of the old Vicksburg paper mill.

Vicksburg students use Minecraft in classroom
Mills, a teacher with the Education for Employment program at the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, said when this class was first opened to students four years ago, students would try to play Minecraft during class.

“Instead of telling them, ‘You can't play,' we gave them projects,” Mills said.

Students are using blueprints, photographs and satellite footage to create, in Minecraft, an exact replica of the old paper mill.

The old mill site will be redeveloped within the next few years into a hub of residential and commercial space. The $50 million project is called The Mill.

Roberson, sitting with 11 other classmates in a large computer lab inside the high school, worked to create a home located on the property. As his eyes moved between Google Maps and Minecraft, he moved his avatar around with his keyboard, placing boxes on top of each other.

One block in the game equates to 3 feet, so some simple division allows the students to calculate how many blocks should make up the building, Roberson said.

His class is currently working on the exterior of the buildings and grounds of the 80-acre property in Vicksburg. As The Mill is developed in the real world, the students will create a virtual tour of the new space, allowing anyone to visit virtually from hundreds of miles away.

The finished product will be shown on The Mill's website, said John Kern, community outreach and education coordinator with The Mill.

“The mill used to be a hub of the community,” Kern said. “This is a great opportunity for us to use that space, to do something that is educational and to give these kids the chance to see that there are opportunities available to them here.”

The project is working to help “young kids get excited about something right in their backyard,” Kern said.

“If you're going to be effective with people, you have to go where they are,” said Kern, who worked as a teacher for 30 years, about using video games in the classroom.

The current generation of students is “extremely digitally savvy,” he said.

“It feels like play, but it's so deeply layered educationally for them,” Kern said.

“Game-ification” and the use of games to teach is a trend that can be seen from universities all the way down to preschools, Kern said.

Sitting in front of his own computer screen at the front of the classroom, Mills watched live as the students' avatars moved quickly through the virtual space, dropping red brick boxes to create a wall of one building.

“They want to be here,” Mills said. “And they are getting rewarded for what they do.”

Using high-grade computers and industry-standard software such as computer-aided design, or CAD, software, the high school students are learning a combination of skills including mathematics, science, engineering and even photography.

This allows the students to “take what they learn and apply it in a 3D way,” Mills said.

“We utilize what they know and bring it together for projects,” he said.

But, most importantly, they are learning to communicate, Mills said.

“What do engineers do?” Mills asked the class.

“Communicate,” the students responded in unison.