A small school’s shy students take a big step into immersive worlds with Minecraft: Education Edition

Educator Jeff Gearhart guides his students through the worlds of Minecraft: Education Edition.

Brinnon School is small. Really small. With about 60 kids and roughly half a dozen full-time faculty members, educators at this intimate Washington school must think bigger as they set students of different ages and confidence levels on a shared path to success.

Thanks to the passion and knowhow of Jeff Gearhart, Brinnon School District’s Technology Coordinator, they’ve found that path running through Minecraft: Education Edition, a vibrant video game with discovery, creation and collaboration at heart. Entering and imagining new three-dimensional worlds in Minecraft, students explore, discover and build anything from brick structures to railroads and cities. They construct together in confidence, regardless of their grade level and no matter if they’re vocal or shy.

“I was a shy kid,” Jeff says. “I kind of kept to myself. We have a lot of students like that here, where they don’t want to come out of their shell. But with Minecraft, that shell is gone.” Jeff has seen real progress in those students, who are reserved in class but contribute eagerly in their virtual community, and then take a bit of that confidence back out with them. “You get them in a Minecraft environment and they are talking to each other, they’re doing things with each other. Then when they leave class, they continue that into their next class period, whether it’s working with that student on another project or something.”

Brinnon School educators and their newly impassioned students wanted to share their experience with peers – so much that Jeff and three students-turned-advocates ventured to Washington’s capitol, Olympia, to speak with state legislators about Minecraft: Education Edition. “I guess we wanted to show, not ask them for funding, but plant a seed and show them what Minecraft can do,” says 6th-grade student Deakon Budnek.

Familiarity and comfort with games in a learning environment also builds up diverse skills for the future, Jeff says. “By the time they’re done with high school or college and they get a job, they’re going to have that confidence that they need to work together as a team and be able to contribute to what they’re doing.”

Jeff’s challenges within the game are exercises in situational problem solving, hinged on practical math, geography and, in some cases, art skills. “If I give them a specific project, say, ‘Okay, you have to build a house that’s this big,’ now they have to calculate that out,” he says. “They have to figure out what materials they need, how many materials they have to build it, how big they have to have it.”

“We worked in Science and we did a Mars world and had to survive in a Mars atmosphere,” recalls Kaydence Yeoman, another 6th-grader that made the trip to Olympia. “You have to work together if you’re trying to build something. It’s better to work together than do it on your own.”

Jeff encourages his students to ask the right questions. “Do they have enough materials, like trees, for wood products? Do they have water for farming?” He even uses Minecraft to teach art skills, challenging students to design a state monument within their virtual world.

Jeff recognizes that not all educators will be as keen as he is on the idea of bringing gaming into the classroom. But he thinks it’s important to teach this generation of students on terms and in ways they’re most comfortable with. “Whether we like it or not, there’s always going to be change in the education world,” he says. “This is a learning platform for these students. It may not be a learning platform for the teacher or the educator, but this can be a learning platform for those students because they understand it that much better, as opposed to traditional book and pen-and-paper type work.”

Visit the Minecraft: Education Edition website to download a trial and see how gaming in the classroom can help foster collaboration, embolden your students, and add some fun to the material. You can also sign up to join our community of Microsoft Innovative Educators and help bring 21st-century learning to your students.