If you know kids in elementary school, chances are they are obsessed with the video game Minecraft. But unless they attend Gladden Farms or Quail Run Elementary, they are not getting school credit for playing the game.
As part of the Code to the Future computer science curriculum, students at the Marana Unified School District schools used the popular video game to learn about computer coding. This is the first year that the MUSD schools have been a part of the Code to the Future program that integrates computer science into the curriculum to make learning fun while giving students a boost in a career-fiel that is growing faster than the qualified workforce.
While working with computers and robots is fun and helps motivate students, that’s not the only benefit. The program helps students learn math, reading, collaboration and typing. Some classes have been able to integrate art, social studies and other subjects with computer science.
“They are engaged,” said Quail Run Principal Andrea Divijak. “ They are enjoying their learning. It has brought a whole new level to teaching them to think critically and corroborate.”
Quail Run parent Jose Martinez has seen his daughter Jade become inspired by the new concepts.
“She has had a lot of motivation,” Martinez said. “She even sets her alarm clock for 6:30 to get on the computer. She is motivated to get on the computer and to start creating, creating, creating. Right now, it is a way to enhance school.”
Martinez said since the implementation of Code for the Future, his fourth-grade daughter has been talking about going to college, something she rarely mentioned in the past.
Other staffers have seen children who struggled in the classroom become far more confident and engaged. Divijak shared the story of one special education student who was not engaged in the classroom, but became a resource to other students in the classroom with the addition of the computer science program. On a recent tour of the school, students sought district district officials to show off projects.
“That would never have happened before,” said Divijak.
The program requires students to complete three “epic builds,” or major projects. The first epic build involved a block coding program like Scratch, where students would create code to get the computer to accomplish things. Younger students made simple animations, while older students created full games.
Several sixth graders said the first project was their favorite.
“I liked Scratch because you had to figure out the exact code, because if one thing went wrong the whole thing went wrong, and it was like a puzzle,” said Quail Run student Mandy Stutzman.
The second epic build involved Lego Robotics. Younger students used Lego blocks to learn sequencing, while older students built and programmed their own robots.
One of the most popular aspects of Minecraft is the customization aspect that allows players to manipulate and create in the game, which turns out to be an effective tool for students.
Younger students learn basic one-word commands that can be entered into the game to create different actions. For example, kindergartners learn how to make the game world go from day to night by entering in a simple code. Other grades learn how to change the weather or change colors.
Beginning in fourth grade, the students learn the common computer language Java to pro-gram the game. Only 5 percent of high schools offer Java classes, while students at the two MUSD schools are learning it in elementary school.
The older students are learning how to create their own blocks, 16x16x16-pixel grids, and then import them into the game. Students must first design the blocks, then use Java to insert them into their Minecraft world.
There were a wide variety of designs, including flowers, butterflies, faces and various geometric patterns. One fourth-grade class was studying ancient Greece, so that class was required to build temples that resembled the ones in ancient Greece. Sixth-grade students had to not only create and import the blocks, but had to create commands so that their blocks did a variety of actions depending on how they coded them. All of the older students also had to learn to use code to modify and change their worlds. While most of the students had previously been exposed to the video game, this opened up a number of new ways to play and enjoy the game, while also immersing them in Java code, which is popular due to its use across the world.
Students are motivated by learning how these skills can be used in a future workplace.
“I like it because it is a fun way to learn something that could be used in the future,” said sixth grader Owen Heisey.
Heisey said he not only looks at video games and technology differently, but he is now seriously considering a career in computer science down the line.
“It makes it seem more open to me because now I know actually how to do it,” Heisey said. “There are a lot of jobs in computer science.”
Marana is expanding the program next year, incorporating more schools as well as expanding it to allow students to collaborate with students from other school districts