Indigenous students mix traditional knowledge and modern technology to envision a different world

More than 1,000 students from 31 schools participated in the first national NAIDOC Minecraft Education Challenge in Australia. A central part of the Challenge was celebrating culture and identity, with students working alongside elders and using curriculum-aligned lesson plans to apply their cultural knowledge in developing new sustainable cities of the future. Read this story from the Microsoft Australia News Center!

National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week is Australia’s largest celebration of the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. During the 2020 NAIDOC week, more than 1,000 Indigenous students in years 3–8 from 31 schools around Australia took part in the first national NAIDOC Minecraft Education Challenge, bringing together the world’s oldest living cultures with the latest in 21st-century technology.

Anchored in this year’s National NAIDOC theme, “Always Was, Always Will Be,” the Challenge invites students to look back at what “always was” by researching and learning about Indigenous knowledge, histories, and creation stories unique to their local area. Supported by community elders, teachers, and experts in Indigenous education, students were then encouraged to look forward to what “always will be.” Using Microsoft Paint 3D and Minecraft: Education Edition, they were asked to create mixed-reality characters and Minecraft worlds in response to this question: “How might we build sustainable schools, cities, towns, or communities in 2030 using Indigenous science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths?”

A student models a character from an indigenous storybook using modeling clay.Before the students jumped onto Paint 3D and Minecraft: Education Edition, they got hands-on creating their characters and worlds using modeling clay and Minecraft LEGO. Through this activity, the students gained an understanding of the different 3D elements they could create.

The results were exceptional. Students collaborated on rich virtual Minecraft worlds, creating a futuristic interpretation of cultural knowledge, language, and ways of knowing, being, and doing. Even after the Challenge itself had drawn to a close, students’ enthusiasm to continue to use technology to celebrate Indigenous culture, language, and knowledge was undimmed.

The NAIDOC Minecraft Education Challenge was a project of the Microsoft partner and Indigenous edtech company Indigital and Indigenous Digital Excellence (IDX), an initiative co-founded by the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) and the Telstra Foundation. The Challenge was also supported by the National Library of Australia and Microsoft. Indigital founder and CEO Mikaela Jade designed the initiative around NAIDOC’s 2020 theme.

John-Paul Janke, Co-chair of the National NAIDOC Committee, says that it is important to remember, “Aboriginal people were the first footprints on this country. The first astronomers, the first bakers, the first engineers—the first diplomat. The language is the first language of this country, so we wanted to say that that always was and always will be part of the history of this country.”

Students participating in the Challenge were encouraged to research and learn from Indigenous sources of knowledge and narrative. Using Microsoft Paint 3D and Minecraft: Education Edition, learners then created mixed reality characters and a series of richly featured Minecraft worlds.

A student generates a 3D model of a character in Paint 3D on a laptop.Using their clay creations as a reference, the students learned how to use Paint 3D to bring their 3D augmented reality characters to life. The students had fun thinking about the characters’ features and personalities.

In Jade’s words: “Together, we can use digital technologies to express 80,000 years of human knowledge for generations to come and enable Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids to connect with and learn from elders about cultural knowledge, history, and language, while learning digital skills in cutting-edge technologies like augmented reality, animation, and coding.”

The participating schools stretch as far north as Erub (Darnley Island) in the Eastern Torres Strait Islands and as far south as Bruny Island in Tasmania. NCIE Operations Manager John Leha says that the Challenge is particularly valuable because it helps Indigenous and Torres Strait Island students develop the skills and knowledge needed for future success.

“The Challenge has allowed us to create a space where Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people can come together, create, explore, and learn with technology, as well as connect with our cultures, and learn from those who have come before us,” he says.

Kayti Denham, Middle Years Teacher at Yirrkala Bilingual School, says, “The NAIDOC Week Minecraft Challenge has been an intense learning curve for both the staff and students here in North East Arnhem Land. On taking up the Challenge, our students have little familiarity with urban landscapes but strong connections to their homelands and the cultural stories that connect them to their long history with beautiful coastal environments.

“Technology challenges arrived in the form of unreliable internet and firewalls that cropped up like Minecraft monsters. However, the resilience of the students and their patience with something they wanted to achieve meant that they appeared early at school asking to take on Minecraft challenges and even asked to be excused from sport to continue designing their worlds!

“What we were able to observe as teachers was the subtle learnings, the sequential following of English language instructions and the guided development of creative curiosity that contributes to the building of transferable skills. And there was a real sense of ownership and pride when goals for both Makers Empire and Minecraft creation had been achieved,” says Denham.

Shining a light on Indigenous knowledge

Located in the night sky, close to what we know as the Southern Cross, is Dhinawan, the emu. Unlike the Southern Cross, Dhinawan isn’t represented by a constellation of stars but has its outline revealed by the stars. It is Dark Emu, and once it’s pointed out to you, it’s as clear as any other feature of the night sky. But you have to be shown.

Working with young students, Indigenous elders have shared their knowledge, culture, and language. Bruce Pascoe’s best-selling book, Young Dark Emu, has inspired lesson plans, with elders augmenting the lessons’ impact using a local lens to share local knowledge and stories with students.

Students then used Indigenous insights, Minecraft: Education Edition, and Paint 3D to create sustainable cities in Minecraft, incorporating Indigenous knowledge of food and water management, structural design, fire management, arts, and language. What truly sets this Challenge apart from other digital skills programs is the opportunity it creates for students to learn about and explore their local Indigenous cultures, setting the foundation for the next generation of Australians to embrace Indigenous culture.

A man lectures at the front of a class.The students’ creations were inspired by the story of Kos and Abob: The Fishtrap Makers. Torres Strait Islander man and ‘Friend of IDX’ Torres Webb shared the story of how the two brothers (Kos and Abob) built all the fish traps around Mer (Murray Island), Waier, Dauar, Erub (Darnley Island) and Ugar (Stephen Island) so that everyone had enough fish to eat.

Annie Butler, a teacher from Plumpton Primary School, says, “Honestly, this has been the best program I have ever taught, the kids were screaming with excitement, and their knowledge and research into indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing was incredible. The kids loved it, and Indigital has been so helpful and supportive.”

According to Sam Ephraim from Kalkie State School, “I am having trouble getting the kids to leave the class to go to other subjects! It has been amazing to see the kids actively looking for more knowledge in both Indigenous and tech skills.

“The kids noticed it was hard to find information on Indigenous culture in their area, so they reached out to university lecturers and all kinds of people to find out why. We found out this was a meeting place, and the river rocks held important cultural significance. The children were sad to learn these rocks were taken away to be displayed in museums and places like that. We focused on these rocks because it highlights how once culture is removed, it is lost,” says Ephraim.

Allison Matthews, Principal Program Manager at Minecraft: Education Edition, says that the opportunity to use digital technology alongside Indigenous knowledge aligns with Microsoft’s core strategy to empower every person on the planet to achieve more and to ensure that no one is left behind.

Allison shared, “The NAIDOC Minecraft Education Challenge is a beacon for the entire world. It reveals how it’s possible to bring together Indigenous knowledge and modern technology, to engage children and accelerate their learning opportunities, and also to equip them with the skills they’ll need when they leave school.

“The Minecraft worlds and content that have been built as part of this first NAIDOC Minecraft Education Challenge provide a rich foundation for the future and for First Peoples around the world to use as a model to engage and inform their young learners.”

According to John-Paul Janke, this is critically important for current and future generations of school students. “You know, every day I think back to when I was at school. And probably you’re the same. You know, we learned more about overseas cultures than we learned about Indigenous cultures. We learn more about the pyramids, but we had the first engineers on the planet here in this continent.” He shares the outcomes of the NAIDOC Minecraft Education Challenge, which brings together knowledge about the world’s oldest technology and modern, cutting-edge technology: “It reshapes that narrative. And I think if we can do that as a nation, the future is endless.”

The Challenge has been carefully designed to support the development of critical 21st-century skills such as creativity, problem-solving, research, collaboration, and communication. It aligns with the existing Indigital Schools Program—a proven platform for Indigenous engagement with technology practices that respect and value Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property (ICIP) through lessons mapped to the National curriculum.

Jane Mackarell, K–12 Director at Microsoft Australia, says that while this is the first year of the Challenge, the initiative has been designed to be sustainable. “It’s tremendously important that Microsoft supports Indigenous-led initiatives that develop 21st-century skills for all students. For these schools, accessing the Indigital platform—where students are engaged using cutting edge technologies alongside rich connections to culture—make this project unique.

“The program supporting the Challenge is also sustainable, encompassing curriculum that can be taught in schools nationally and ensuring that teachers and the community are involved and supported. We hope that by embedding this capability in Australian schools, generations of students will benefit from learning about the nation’s oldest living cultures while developing the skills that allow them to thrive in modern workplaces.”

Learners at St Peter’s Primary School in New South Wales designed and animated a numbat named Maant Ngaagk (Moon Sun). This character narrated the Minecraft world they had designed, explaining features of the landscape and the Indigenous knowledge that students had learned to visitors. These creations brought a diverse array of skills together, including communication, collaboration, coding and design thinking, demonstrating students’ deep engagement and their grasp of both Indigenous learning and modern technology.

Working towards a brighter future

Indigital and IDX have been working in 31 rural, remote, and urban communities all around Australia to provide training for teachers in schools engaged in the Challenge.

They have provided face-to-face training to remote communities including Erub (Darnley Island) and Eidsvold in Queensland, as well as online training to teachers in schools around Australia. These programs have covered issues such as cultural storytelling, how to use the Paint 3D program to create 3D mixed reality characters, Minecraft: Education Edition, access to the Indigital platform, how to record stories in indigenous languages, and creating augmented reality from students’ work.

An aerial shot of the coast of Erub (Darnley Island)Erub (Darnley Island) is situated in the eastern section of the Torres Strait. The Tagai State College campus at Erub (Darnley Island), Erub Erwer Uteb, was one of 31 schools invited to participate in the Challenge in 2020. The Challenge team (IDX and Indigital) travelled to Erub to deliver the program on country in October 2020. The team spent the week working with members of the community and school.

According to Jade, “Indigenous Australians make up approximately 3 percent of the population but are barely represented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce. As part of the Challenge, we ask participants to dream what a sustainable world would look like in 2030. By then—just ten years from now, when these children become adults—we want to see more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples studying, working, and leading in STEM-related fields.

“We believe that by developing culturally responsive curriculum and teaching approaches, integrating Indigenous knowledge, and developing community outreach, we can help establish real-life pathways to a job. There’s been enormous enthusiasm everywhere we have been. The kids have been coming early to school because they’re excited by the opportunity to learn more about their culture and then use technology to bring that to life. In the local communities, there is enormous pride in what the children are achieving and the enduring impact this learning will have.”

A woman and man work together on a laptop.The team worked with over 60 students at the school and upskilled community members in the use of different platforms and technologies. Torres Strait Islander man and artist Jimmy Thaiday joined in on the workshops. Indigital team member Peta Rowlands showed Jimmy how to create 3D characters using Paint 3D. As an artist, Jimmy was fascinated by the potential of the platform and enjoyed assisting the students in making their own creations using Paint 3D.

Tianji Dickens, Philanthropies Lead at Microsoft Australia, adds that the elders’ enthusiasm has been vital to the success of the initiative. “It’s been incredible seeing the response from the elders in the community. Elders are working with students to share their knowledge and apply it to new contexts in the future. We are also proud to be working with the NAIDOC committee who are so supportive of providing opportunities for communities to really celebrate their language, culture, and history through technology. Microsoft is delighted to support this initiative in Australia and to offer a foundation for similar ventures supporting First Peoples around the world.”

The schoolchildren participating in the Challenge developed STEM skills while honing 21st-century capabilities using Minecraft: Education Edition and Paint 3D as platforms for creativity and problem-solving. They learned from elders and used that knowledge to create virtual worlds that offer a fresh vision of the future.

It’s incredible to see initiatives like this that can help empower Indigenous voices and build cross-cultural connections around the world through technology! You can read the original version of this post on the Microsoft Australia News Center.

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