Steven Saus via
A house built with the video game "Minecraft."

JUNEAU, Alaska — It can be hard to peel a young person's eyes off the screen. Rather than fight the electronic glue, some educators are embracing kids' tech-obsession and finding ways to incorporate computer games into the classroom. None has been more popular than Minecraft.

"Gaming in education has been gaining steady popularity particularly with the proliferation of iPads in the classroom," said Lee Graham, coordinator of Education Technology and associate professor at the University of Alaska Southeast School of Education. "So, as we were looking at games — many of which really have no educational value or redeeming value at all — Minecraft ... came to the forefront."

Minecraft should be easy to explain. Colin Osterhout, who recently completed his master's in Ed-Tech through UAS, describes it as digital Legos, the Juneau Empire reported. It's a lot more than that, though.

Minecraft is a "sandbox" game. It's an open, virtual world with a lot of freedom. Users manipulate the world by mining and building, and mirroring the real world, what can be built can be pretty amazing.

Osterhout learned about a modification for the game that allows programming inside Minecraft. Users can build circuits, gate switches and more. He's seen a fully functioning calculator built within Minecraft. It's also possible to explore engineering and physics, even calculus in Minecraft.

"There's a lot of freedom in how the game is played, and generally anyone can customize the game, even if they don't know programming — but knowing it can help," Graham said.

Teachers across the state had the opportunity to train in using Minecraft in the classroom from Graham and Osterhout at the Alaska Society for Technology in Education Conference held in Anchorage recently. Adults can sometimes take longer to catch on to the game than children, Graham noted. For an adult trying to learn, she recommends finding a 10-year-old.

While the most obvious applications in education involve math and science fields, Graham has been interested in using it for other subjects.

"My students started playing with Minecraft and recommended it for a 'Hunger Games' experience. So at that point, I started trying to link it to course objectives, particularly in Language Arts," Graham added.

Technology and Spanish teacher Ray Imel at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School is one teacher using Minecraft in the classroom, on a server owned by UAS. On a Friday afternoon, his students were seated around the technology lab, deftly navigating a digital world of their creation. Two of his classes had read "The Maze Runner" by James Dashner and were building mazes of their own based on their understanding of the book.

Based on findings from reading researcher Louise Rosenblatt, Graham is focused on using Minecraft as a tool to see the meaning of texts students read. Rosenblatt says meanings are personal and individualized, based on a number of factors. In older students, teachers typically count on written essays; in younger students they often count on drawings, puppet shows and other visual tools.

"With Minecraft, the student can make what is going on in their imagination real — in the game," Graham explained. "So it allows us, the teachers, to 'see' the meaning made from a piece of literature by any unique student. We can also see the themes that students identify by looking at what they have built. We can see the inferences students have made — even if they don't know they have made them — by having students explain what they have built."

Combining literature and Minecraft started with Graham's suggestion of using "The Giver." Students built a community based on the books and explained why they did what they did.

"Nothing was built in color," Imel said, describing his students' Minecraft creation. "Why is that? In 'The Giver,' one of the themes is trying not to unsettle or upset."

This semester, students have built elaborate mazes. Each class will be tasked with solving the other class's maze.

"It's really fun," student Virginia Potts said. "You can build anything you want. Even if it's supposed to be for a specific project, you can still customize it."

Another student, Danny Jabalde, while carving an underground tunnel as part of the maze his class is building collectively, said he enjoys using Minecraft in class and occasionally plays at home.

One thing he said using Minecraft teaches him is how to work with others.

"Other people are in here, all working, trying to make it a really good (maze) for the other people. If you do run into people, you're supposed to work with them," he said, acknowledging that it can be hard "when you have an idea and other people are changing it."

Imel has found the students learn a lot more than architectural and literary concepts with the project. He's fascinated by the social skills involved in a whole class working together. With projects like this, he sees students naturally falling into roles that often might be assigned.

In free play, though, the situation "descends into 'Lord of the Flies'" — a book they are not currently studying and simulating, at least not yet.

"One of neat things is students working collaboratively, working together to solve problems and figuring out how to do that," Imel said. "I think they're learning a lot about their own sort of style and what they need to be successful, how to organize work to get it done."

He was surprised to find that kids who may not traditionally be the best students excelled in the Minecraft project.

"Someone who wouldn't normally be engaged was really participating, making everything better," Imel said.

The level of engagement Minecraft brings is a major draw for educators.

"The engagement piece is hard to downplay," Osterhout said.

Osterhout helped organize a Friday Fun Night at Harborview Elementary School using Minecraft. Teacher Tom McKenna told Osterhout he was amazed at how sucked into the game they were, how engaging it was.

Graham and her Ed-Tech students have been studying just this.

More than 800 students from sixth through 12th grade participated in the Minecraft-'Giver' project last semester, including Imel's classes.

"At the end of this experience my students and I sent a survey and asked the teachers of the students questions concerning whether the Minecraft experience met the Language Arts standards we had targeted," Graham said. They did.

One of the questions in the survey asked if students were engaged. The options were "highly engaged," ''somewhat engaged" and "not engaged."

"Eight-hundred students ranging in grades from six to 12 were highly engaged ... When students are highly engaged, there are no behavioral issues and learning is far more likely to occur as long as the experience in which they are engaged is aligned with content standards," Graham reported. "This is a huge pro."

The engagement educators have reported can be taken a step too far.

"(Some) students can — and will — choose to skip recess to work in Minecraft, or neglect doing other work because there is always more to build in Minecraft," Graham said.

She suggests Minecraft be limited to an hour or hour-and-a-half of play in the classroom per day.

Overall, Graham has found Minecraft to be an effective tool in the classroom, though not everyone is sold on the idea. She said she and her students have to be "evangelists to a certain extent."

Their enthusiasm for Minecraft is based in research and studies, though.

"So far, we are finding that (students) are engaging more fully, learning more deeply and their teachers are very happy that this tool is available," she said.

As much as Graham talks up Minecraft as a great tool in the classroom, she pointed out "that Minecraft without a good teacher is a nice game, but has very little educational value. It takes a teacher to guide the students to learn deeply — and to connect what students have learned in Minecraft to the content."

Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire,