Educators nationwide are struggling to engage students in distance learning, especially the kids who are already bored or tune out easily.
So a group of teachers from Broward County Public Schools is using a Trojan horse concept. They’re sneaking academic lessons into something the students already love, video games, such as Minecraft.
“It reaches them where they are because this is something they were already doing, already utilizing and now they’re doing it in a meaningful, educational manner,” said Erik Leitner, the school district’s STEM and computer science instructional facilitator.
"My kids usually blow up my phone asking me when I’m gonna host a world for them to go in and build,” said Anne Skurnick, who teaches coding at Pines Middle School.
In those far-off days before the pandemic, Skurnick used Minecraft in her classroom. These days she’s still using it, remotely, of course, to engage her students with all kinds of projects. Minecraft can be used to teach history, science, math, geography and many other subjects.
Teachers issue challenges in Minecraft. If the kids conceive it, they can build it, as long as their math and engineering concepts are correct.
“So these are fun things but they still have to do with school,” Skurnick said. “The kids are actually wanting to be in there, they want to be able to build things, I’ve gotten them thinking of the pandemic, they built a hospital.”
It’s not just about bolstering their architecture or engineering skills, the kids will tell you jumping on this gaming platform is a way to fight the pandemic boredom.
“So I get to play with my friends in Minecraft and I get to create stuff which takes up my time and doesn’t just leave you sitting around doing nothing,” said Megan Mendoza, one of Skurnick’s students at Pines Middle.
“It offers a lot of entertainment as well as it helps us build on our architecture skills,” added Megan’s classmate, Ashley Mandandares.
The two girls were side-by-side on Skurnick’s computer as we spoke to them.
With everyone stuck inside, one of the most popular challenges right now is asking the students to design the perfect home for a quarantine. Once the challenge goes out on the Minecraft program, kids all over the world, not just Broward County, can respond and submit videos of their work. There’s a whole section devoted to COVID-19.
Leitner showed us how one student created a virtual 3D model of the coronavirus.
“And this is a model that was generated completely by the student based on the research they had done regarding the structure of the virus and what is known about it so far,” Leitner said. ”All of those things allow the students to kind of engage, express how they were feeling about the situation they were in and do something that was positive on a social-emotional level.”
Hundreds of students in Broward and thousands more across the country are designing part of their own home learning experience, thanks to teachers using a video game.