Posted by Andrew Vaccaro
Smartphones, tablets, and laptops permeate the lives of modern students. Students conduct research on the Internet, watch their favorite movies and TV shows, and of course play video games. Games have a powerful ability to capture the attention of children, for better or worse. Games are often viewed as the killers of education; parents are afraid that games have no educational value and will only detract from time spent on homework or playing with other children. Educators now have the option to integrate video games into their curriculums and open a new world of possibilities in education. As a McDermott Scholar, I have made the “games in education” movement one of my personal endeavors. For the last year and a half, I have spent my weekends and summers working on various projects intended to teach engineering principles to students using games. Our target audience has been children between the ages of nine and 12, as by this age students already understand the basics of using computers and playing games. Specifically, we focus on using Minecraft to teach engineering and Kerbal Space Program to teach orbital physics.
Minecraft is a game that needs no introduction. The open-world game is the top-selling PC game of all time and has spawned one of the largest online communities in the world. Players are presented with an essentially infinite world made up of dozens of different types of cubes, also called voxels or blocks. By exploring the dynamically generated terrain, they can collect resources, fight monsters, and work their way through a complex yet accessible crafting system. An in-game analogue to electricity called redstone can be used to power blocks and create complex contraptions that can automate farming or create a vanishing bridge. Redstone is probably our most powerful ally in education, as we teach basic logic gates and digital circuit creation using redstone within the game environment. A third-party add-on called ComputerCraft adds computers and turtles (an old computer science joke) into the game which we use to teach programming in Lua. The older students even learn how to program their own add-ons using Java.
Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a relative newcomer in the gaming industry, with the full release occurring just this past month. In KSP, players are given a myriad of rocket and space plane parts to construct and launch their very own ships into space. A solar system not unlike our own presents players with a variety of planets and moons to explore, each with unique terrain and gravity wells. Kids learn the art of building rockets through trial and error, working their way through a tech tree to unlock bigger and badder engines and capsules. We teach orbital physics by having kids plan our their missions and calculate the most efficient transfers to reach other planets.
Even with the educational possibilities presented by both Minecraft and KSP, gaming in education is still in its infancy. Minecraft camps are popping up across the nation, offering both online and in-person programs to students ranging from elementary school through college. I will be instructing a half-dozen weeks of programs at UTD alone this summer. The next challenge is convincing the American school system that games (even if not designed specifically for an educational environment) are legitimate tools to use in K-12 education. Schools such as Uplift Prepatory (Dallas) and Beaver Tech Center (Garland) have started using Minecraft in a club setting, but there have been no further expansions. I am planning to spend the rest of my time as a McDermott Scholar helping to legitimize the use of video games in early education and help develop the problem-solving and coding skills of the next generation.