How a New Jersey middle school uses Minecraft: Education Edition to teach game design

How do you teach game design in a middle school setting? According to Steve Isaacs, who teaches at the William Annin Middle School in New Jersey, just 45 minutes west of New York City, it looks a bit like this:

Steve teaches Game Design and Development via a quest-based (or choice-based) learning environment, providing students with a variety of options as they work through activities, often set inside the worlds of Minecraft: Education Edition. Students create minigames in Minecraft, or even full story-driven games, by working with the game’s functional Redstone and command blocks, which can trigger in-world events. Think of these blocks as setting up levers that might cause something to happen in the game. Steve and his students also work with Code Builder for Minecraft: Education Edition, which is a great way to learn coding.

One of these Minecraft: Education Edition projects, Redstonia, has students recreating a Redstone structure based on an online tutorial (via YouTube, Snapguide, a website, etc.). After recreating the building, students are required to modify it by adding an original element. Many students are currently working on this quest, but two students recently completed it by making a nuclear reactor and making the required adjustments – see the video above – so it would work in Minecraft: Education Edition (the original was created in Minecraft: Java Edition).

“It’s not about the blocks but how it works together,” according to David and Daniel, the two students who put their nuclear twist on Redstonia. “Game design is about creativity. Minecraft opens up these doors to be creative, and there are a lot of options to get to an end goal.”

The William Annin Middle School serves over 1,200 students in grades six, seven and eight, with a mission to “promote a safe and supportive environment to ensure that our students can advance towards their future as knowledgeable, open-minded, responsible and compassionate individuals who can create positive changes in our world.” Thanks to his Minecraft-fueled mission, Steve Isaacs is widely recognized for his contribution to the field of education. Since Steve’s students know and love Minecraft, he has used the game as a tool to teach game design. Steve is part of the Global Minecraft Mentor Program, which supports other teachers around the world who are just starting their Minecraft journey.

“I believe it is my responsibility to leverage how students (and adults) learn in informal learning environments,” Steve says. “I would prefer to model how to learn rather than spend the majority of my time directly instructing students. This activity puts the learning in the students’ hands in a manner that is relevant to them.”

As Steve continues this journey with Minecraft, he’s seeing more and more teaching possibilities come to life inside the game and its ability to spark creative, custom solutions. “Capitalizing on what’s possible and providing opportunities for students to further develop skills in these areas leads to a richer approach to game development and computational thinking,” Steve says. “Fully automating their games in Minecraft puts them in a position to create games that can be experienced by others. Publishing these games for an authentic audience is an important part of the game development experience.”

As for what’s next, Steve and his class are thinking about how Minecraft: Education Edition can intersect with Virtual Reality. “I am especially intrigued by the possibility of exporting 3D models from Minecraft to provide opportunities for students to use their Minecraft creations in other environments, like AR, VR and the physical world with 3D printing,” he says. “I am thrilled to be on this journey with them.”

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