National Edition

Could Minecraft help kids get smarter?

By Menachem Wecker

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, May 19 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Statistics about the scope of the education-oriented community on Minecraft can be difficult to pin down, but MinecraftEdu, a project of U.S. and Norwegian educators and programmers that makes the game affordable for schools, launched around Christmas 2011. (Minecraft typically costs $26.95.) One year later, the official MinecraftEdu Tumblr claimed it was “rapidly approaching” its 1,000th school.

Based on the site’s sales statistics, Joel Levin, a co-founder and education director at TeacherGaming, which created MinecraftEdu, estimates that more than 250,000 students have used Minecraft in their schools in more than 40 countries and that over 2,000 schools use the platform today.

“We’ve seen consistent growth in the number of new schools every month,” says Levin, a former computer teacher at a New York City private school. “It is not an exaggeration to say that Minecraft is being used at every grade level from kindergarten to college and in literally every subject area from science to history to art.”

One of the schools that has adopted the platform is South Orange Middle School in New Jersey. Last year, a group of students at the school circulated a petition requesting Minecraft access in the library. Librarian Elissa Malespina and IT colleagues decided to install MinecraftEdu on the library’s 26 computers.

The Minecraft Club that Malespina hosted during South Orange’s after-school enrichment program was so popular that she ran it this past fall and winter and plans to run it this spring. There is also a waiting list, she says, and she is piloting the program for the school district, where it will expand to other middle schools this spring.

The game appeals particularly to some of the school’s special-education students, including one student who is selectively mute. “You would never know it when he is playing Minecraft during the club,” she says. “He is talking with the players around him and strategizing just like all the other middle school students. But in a classroom setting, he will not speak with anyone.”

Minecraft isn’t used in the classroom at South Orange Middle School, Malespina says, but she has heard of colleagues using the game to teach physics, math and architecture. And by observing her son and her students as they navigate the game, Malespina sees its promise for teaching students about building and creating virtual worlds, playing with other people, team building, communication and problem-solving.

A game with particular appeal to girls

Paul Jones, a clinical professor of journalism, mass communication and information and library science at UNC, has seen that many of the undergraduate women he teaches cut their technological teeth on Minecraft. The game is “the real virtual playground that (educators) seek,” he says.

The game enjoys more of “a gender balance” than some of its competitors, and it might help interest more young girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers down the road, an expert recently told NPR.

Morgan Grobin, a junior at McGill University studying electrical engineering, started playing Minecraft in summer 2011 and estimates she’s played the game for about 400 hours to date.

“I started playing because it seemed like a game that didn’t really have an end goal, and there were limitless possibilities with what you could do,” she says. “I don’t really like games with guns, so it was cool to see a game with some element of conflict but that didn’t take up the whole game mechanic.”

Like Jones, she’s noticed that many women play Minecraft. “Society teaches young men to enjoy destroying things while it teaches young women to enjoy building things, and Minecraft really is a building game,” she says.

Grobin has seen Minecraft users use inappropriate language on in-game chats, but she thinks the game is well-suited for kids of any age. “I would recommend not letting kids have access to Minecraft servers,” she says. “Other than that, Minecraft is definitely not a video game that parents should be worried about.”

Potential educational benefits aside, some parents aren't sure what to think.

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