Microbiomes, Museums, and Minecraft

Now, everyone walk into the head and then teleport to the stomach…” and so began the second and final summer week of the the Minecraft & Human Microbiome program here at the American Museum of Natural History. For the previous six days, 14 students had been using Minecraft to take a deep dive into several of the themes and concepts presented in our temporary exhibit, the Secret World Inside You. How? In a Minecraft map custom-made to resemble a human body, of course! Once in this map youth in the program explored the diversity of microbes across the human body, role-played as white blood cells and antibiotics to protect the body from foreign invaders, and more.

During the second week of the program the youth spent the majority of their time designing and building activities that focused on a microbial topic of their choosing. Trips to the exhibit, visits to Microbiology Labs, and feedback from scientists and their peers were all incorporated into their designs before the summer portion of the program came to an end.

Last fall they returned to develop YouTube-bound Let’s Play videos and other educational resources to accompany this microbial Minecraft world. These videos, along with new ones made by Museum scientists, are now available at the Museum’s web site, OLogy. Along with the Let’s Play videos, the web site offers the entire Minecraft map as well, so anyone can play Minecraft, learn about the human microbiome, and post their own Let’s Play videos. For us as educators, we were excited to have the opportunity to understand the impact Minecraft could have in informal science learning. We entered it with a number of questions: Could Minecraft be used to consolidate science content into digestible activities to leverage student understanding of class topics in an approachable manner? In what ways can educators utilize the game’s building mechanics to develop educational activities and embed instructional content that pair with in-class learning goals to support student learning? When introducing microbiology topics (e.g., microbe scale, microbe diversity and environmental influence, etc.) to a class, in what ways could designing simulated in-game activities that connect to science topics strengthen students’ understanding of the course content? How would pairing Minecraft with in-class microbial simulations and a design-based final project allow students to direct their own learning and utilize the game’s features to support knowledge construction? \ Working with Chris Vicari, an outside evaluator who observed and interviewed the students, and analyzed both their Minecraft activities and their Let’s Play commentaries, we learned that: Minecraft Let’s Play videos served as evidence of youth’s deep understanding of science content Video recordings of the students playing their own activities as they narrated the experience (e.g., discussed goals, purpose of the activity, connection to science, etc.) provided rich descriptions of the microbiology material represented in their activities. Students also emphasized a clear understanding of its connection to real-world science. Minecraft is a flexible tool that can support learning Minecraft’s creative building mechanics enabled teachers to design a custom Minecraft world resembling the human body with five separate microbiology activities that paired with in-class learning goals to support student content knowledge construction. Minecraft helped students connect to microbiology Pairing the Minecraft activities with direct instruction and reflection exercises helped teachers maintain focus on the course material and learning objectives. As a result, students clearly articulated their microbiology knowledge as they described how their in-game experiences fit within a broader microbiology context. Minecraft helped students articulate microbiology knowledge By probing student content knowledge and requiring them to illustrate connections between the course material with the Minecraft activities, students articulated their microbiology knowledge via rich descriptions of their experiences and used microbiology terms to describe their in-game actions Minecraft helped students understand the iterative design process Playtests and teacher feedback strengthened student understanding of the design process and how ideas can change over time. This was exemplified by their engagement and experience using Minecraft as they willingly continued improving, testing, and iterating on their designs throughout the course. Students found Minecraft to be fun and engaging Despite the structured class environment, students often asked if more time could be dedicated to playing the Minecraft activities or if they could be more challenging. They also spent hours designing their own activities without requiring breaks. Of course, there were still many challenges when using Minecraft within the course. Designing activities for instruction can be incredibly challenging and often requires a teacher with a lot of experience or an outside consultant. Students also require guidance to make meaningful connections between their experiences in Minecraft and the in-class learning content and activities. While extensive preparation, setup, and knowledge are needed to effectively leverage Minecraft for education, such effort can be worth pursuing to provide enriching science learning opportunities to our students. This post was written based on reports by both Hannah Jaris, AMNH Senior Coordinator in Youth Initiatives, and the program evaluation by Chris Vicari.