Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Oh, WOW"

I think the recent meeting of the Minecraft club has been the most successful so far.  I learned last week that the students want a challenge, a problem to solve, but they also want a way to preserve their work from week to week.  So my new strategy for the group is to have some sort of challenge for them to complete, and upon completion reward them with free-build time.  All of this will take place in the same world, but I will keep the challenge areas in a different part of the world from where they are working on their village.  This week was the first time I experimented with the teleportation and information blocks included in the EDU mod.  Those were handy.  I had a little bit of problem with the info blocks teleporting people above ground when you walked over them, but I solved that by putting a block on top of them.  The teleporters were great for allowing students to explore the world to find the perfect building spot and making it easy for them to find the spot again, or allow others to easily to see what everyone else was up to.

The students had become fairly proficient navigators of Minecraft, but they had no experience in caves or relying on torches for light.  So for yesterday's challenge I used the no-clip build mode to fly underground and find an expansive cave network.  After exploring the cave and blocking off a couple of side passages I decided it would work for what I wanted to do.  Students began in one end of the cave, had unlimited torches, and had to find their way out.  It went fairly smoothly, with students splitting up in the cave to explore the different passages.  The final challenge of the cave was that once they found the exit, they had to swim up a waterfall to reach it.  Slightly counter-intuitive, but they figured it out quick enough.  The best moment of the day happened when one student exited the cave, saw the world outside, and exclaimed, "Oh wow!"  From that point on they rushed out into the world, staking claims and beginning construction.  While they were in the cave I kept them out of creative mode so they couldn't just bust their way out, but once they were above ground I put them in creative mode.  I would like to do something with survival mode in the future, maybe a shipwreck-type simulation with a journaling component, but that can wait for another time.

This week at the after-school program students were doing some experiments with circuits and lightbulbs, which could segway perfectly into beginning some work with redstone in MC.  I could easily integrate this into my new strategy of giving students a problem to solve with the reward of free-build time.  An assignment  might look like this: "Create a circuit to open this door using elements x, y, and z.  Beyond the door lies a teleporter to take you to your village."  I could create some sort of math challenge, requiring students to build a structure with certain square footage or volume requirements, or do an architecture project where they need to draw up plans for a structure on grid paper and then build it in game.  Feel free to offer ideas for other challenges or ways I could be using this tool in the comments -- all input is valuable.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Prison Break

This week in Minecraft I put my students in groups of two and gave them the task of building something, anything, in 40 minutes and then to display their creation to the other students.  I wanted them to focus on building without having to worry about terraforming or gathering resources, so I made two large bedrock boxes (approx. 40 block cubes) and provided them with unlimited resources.  I felt bad essentially dropping them into prisons and forcing them to build, because a lot of creativity in MC can come from the environment around you.  I tried to remove a little bit of the prison ambience by at least giving them a grassy floor to start out with.

One of the pairs surprised me with their first actions in the arena: instead of building, they started digging (halted quickly by bedrock) and made patterns in the dirt ground, writing their names, replacing the grass with colored wool, etc.  Understandably, most students' first actions were to try and escape the boxes, but when that wasn't immediately attainable they began building.  It was their first exposure to stairs, glass, and colored wool, which led to interesting discussions about whether or not it is ok to build a glass house as well as attempts to build staircases out of the boxes (which were eventually sucessful).  Outside the boxes was just a flat grassland, but that wasn't really the students' goal in escaping.  They wanted to look over the wall at what the other students were building.  Although I don't think I will use this type of activity again with these students, I am pleased at how everything worked out.

The students are getting fairly comfortable (for the most part) with the controls of MC, how to build, etc.  Also, the students want to explore more -- boundaries can be used as powerful tools.  The boxes I dropped the students in originally served to keep them focused on the task I was hoping they would complete (building a structure), but it turned into a puzzle (how do I spy on what they other groups are building?).  I didn't intend for it to be a puzzle, but the kids made it one.  I want to figure out more ways to do this -- use MC to give students a simple task and let them find a puzzle in it.


After two sessions of working in the tutorial world I decided to give students a little more freedom and see what would happen if I turned them loose in a new world.  They had the concepts of moving, building, and destroying blocks down pretty well, so this week I wanted to focus on gathering resources and crafting tools.  I found a printable minecraft recipe book online ( and made a couple copies of it for general use.  If we had better computers, I would have just had students look at the Minecraft wiki page in the background, but I didn't want to risk the computers giving them any more issues than necessary.  My goal for the lesson was to have each group work together to start building a house.  To achieve this goal students would have to craft tools and gather resources as well, giving them all the basic skills they need to go on to bigger and better things.

Looking back at how it went, I worry that I gave the first group of students a little too much freedom.  I spent too much time bending over students' shoulders, explaining what a crafting square is, showing them where to find certain tools in the recipe book and how to get the ingredients for these tools.  One difficulty was the topography of the world we were in: it was a hilly forest, which made it very easy for students to get separated, reducing the potential for the group to work together.  The lesson was successful in the end -- everyone had learned how to build tools and gather resources, but I could have gone about it better.

With the second group I took a couple of minutes before we sat down at the computers to explain the recipe book and how to use it.  I still spent a good amount of time leaning over shoulders, but they were picking it up quicker, it seemed.  Another difference with the second group was the world that they were in:  it was largely snowy grassland with very few trees.  This made it much easier for everyone to stay together, share ideas, and, by the end of the session, build a house together.

Each day I learn more and more of how to make this work better.  While it is great to give students freedom and take the project where they want to go, I need to make sure I am giving them enough support for this to be successful.  This also means I need to know the worlds that we are using before the session starts, and whether or not a particular world will work for what I hope to accomplish.  Today that didn't happen because I spent a good amount of time updating MinecraftEdu to v0.98, but hopefully this next week I'll get some time to experiment with the new tools in the update and have some maps planned out.  Also, I want to show the students some videos of what other people are creating in Minecraft (architecture projects, Rube Goldbergs, adventure map creation [How cool would it be if students designed an adventure map, complete with story and characters?], etc.).  I have a couple of things in mind, but if anyone actually reads this and has some cool Minecraft links I would appreciate it.

(Also, the lag problems I had last week have disappeared (thankfully).  I assume the server just needed to be reset.)

Round 2

Minecraft Club met last week for the second time.  During this time we went through the second half of the tutorial map, giving students a chance to practice copying simple shapes and get used to right/left clicking to create/destroy.  Some of the shapes required the students to build simple scaffolding to get up high enough for completion.  One student figured out that you can place a block under your feet if you time it right during a jump and was able to teach the trick to the classmates sitting next to him.  As soon as they got through that they were quickly exploring, trying to see who could get to the top of the nearby mountain first.  Next week I'm entertaining the idea of a survival island senario or possibly making a treasure hunt map for them (idea from

Right now the schedule at the after-school only allows for Minecraft once a week, but that might be changing due to popular demand.  Also, I'm intrigued at the potential Minecraft poses as a tool in tutoring, if I could somehow use the program to help students have a better concept of arrays or something like that.  I've got the tool, why not use it?

There were a couple of technical problems we encountered, which may be due to the limitations of the computer I am using to run the server.  When students try to break blocks they sometimes reappear at random, making resource collection frustrating.  There were also some lag issues when trying to place blocks.  The thing that I don't understand is when they left the tutorial area of the map and tried to continue building: they could place blocks to their hearts' content, but they were unable to break any blocks unless I put them in creative mode.  In creative mode they could build/destroy without problems.  I'll do some experimenting this week to see if it was an isolated problem or what-not.

wasd? -- Day 0 in Minecraft

The last site I was using to host my blog about using the Minecratft EDU mod at an after-school program has folded due to greater inactivity, so I am migrating my blog here. This blog is to track my progress of experimenting with Minecraft in an educational after-school program for refugee students in Western New York.

Today was the first time any of the kids at our program had heard of Minecraft.  It involved two 45-minutes sessions of four kids each.  I wish I could get more kids on at a time (there is certainly interest among the others in the program), but that is all our current equipment allows for.  MinecraftEdu worked great aside from one hiccup.  Due to a problem with one computer, I had to bring in my personal laptop so that I could have a spot on the server with the kids.  Unfortunately I hadn't installed MinecraftEdu on it yet, and there is currently a bug in Minecraft 1.1 with the installer (scheduled to be resolved within the week, I'm told) so I couldn't get it installed.  I was able to get in touch with support at MinecraftEdu rather quickly and with their help had the machine running before the end of the second session.  Because of this, most of the time I was hovering over kids' shoulders, pointing out which way to go, giving mini-tutorials on running and jumping at the same time, etc.  I had one student's account set up with teacher settings so that I had access to them if I needed them, but I was hestitant to use them too much because that meant having a kid slide off his computer until I was done.

Some of the kids picked it up really quick -- they were running through the tutorial pretty quickly, getting bored with looking for levers and wanting to just start building.  A great moment was when a kid hit the first lever while the group of students was standing near the door; the suddenly open door surprised them and incited a moment of brief excitement as they all ran through the door as fast as they could to see what would happen next.

But then there were also a couple kids who had never used "wasd" before.  I quickly forget that although I have been playing games all my life, the concept of using space to jump must be taught at some point.  And for a couple of kids, today was that day.  They all made considerable progress by the end of the 45 minutes, but it will still take some time before they really feel comfortable with the game.

I'm not sure yet just what sort of direction this group is going to take.  I want to let the kids get more familiar with how to play the game and see what they are interested in from there.  I've got plenty of ideas for the group (but am always open to more), but I really want the kids to be able to make it their own.