When you combine two items correctly in Minecraft, it makes a new item – a bit like chemistry. So it isn't surprising really that a modded version of the game is successfully being used to replace certain elements of chemistry lessons in schools.
Students are inadvertently learning traditionally tricky topics such as polymer synthesis (making plastic) and refining oil with greater ease.
Imagine a class without lessons, tests and homework, but with missions, quests and teamwork,” Lead researcher Dr Ronald Smaldone ponders. “Video games offer an attractive educational platform because they are designed to be fun and engaging, as opposed to traditional approaches to teaching through lectures and assignments”.
Dr Smaldone says that holding the attention and focus of students, and providing information in a meaningful way, is a significant challenge for online education (and all education for that matter).
“Imagine having educational content that would not only command the complete focus of students, but even excite them so much that they would consume it without needing to be assigned it,” Dr Smaldone says.
Dr Smaldone points out there are “many advantages” to providing educational content in a computerised game format, one of which is that it allows learners to move at their own pace.
“A horizontal learning approach allows students who understand the material quickly to move on to more challenging material, whereas those that need extra time can take it, making it truly personalised,” Dr Smaldone says. “Management of the pace of learning is extremely important when interacting with students remotely. Educational content must be provided in such a way that they do not become bored (the material is not challenging enough) or frustrated (the material is too challenging)”.
The Minecraft mod used for these lessons integrates concepts of chemistry and engineering into the gameplay. Called Polycraft World, the development of the mod maintained two main goals — the science must be accurate, and it must add something fun to the game.
In one of many trial classes, over a period of 12 months Dr Christina Thompson taught a one hour general topics class entitled “Video Games and Learning” to a small (thirteen students in each class) group of students of mixed subject background and age, through the Honors College at the University of Texas at Dallas. No in-class science instruction was given, but a non-graded part of the class was to play Polycraft World.
Without ever being asked to learn or remember anything from the game, students were given a pop quiz written in entirely scientific language which asked them questions ranging from identifying the chemical components of polymers based on their acronyms, to drawing a distillation tree for crude oil given a blank piece of paper.
Despite this, five of the thirteen students could correctly draw a crude oil distillation tree to three levels of distillation, with three more able to draw it to two levels of distillation. And they learned this entirely from playing Minecraft.
This is just another example of the way that video games can be a positive contribution to a child's development, countering the traditional negative stigma gaming has carried for far too long.