Minecraft Builder Bowl Fosters Immersive Learning

Minecraft is one of the most popular online games in history, and Aaron E. Walsh, founding director of the Immersive Education Initiative (iED), says it's the perfect environment for his organization's first ever Builder Bowl competition.

"When you have a platform that kids absolutely love — parents can't peel them away from it — and when it's one that can also be used to provide bona fide educational experiences, it would have been criminal of us not to use it," Walsh said.

The iED's Minecraft Builder Bowl, which kicked off this month, is the first of an ongoing series of tournaments aimed at fostering awareness of the value of immersive learning, and to get students of iED member organizations directly involved with these technologies. The initial elimination rounds of this bracketed competition are underway now. Small teams of students are using Minecraft to build "immersive experiences, content, and applications," the Web site says. The championship rounds are scheduled to take place during the Immersion 2015 conference in Paris in September.

Minecraft is a virtual building block game originally created by Swedish programmer Markus Persson and published by his company, Mojang. Working in an infinite digital world of varying terrains, players dig (mine) and build (craft) using different kinds of 3D cubes. Essentially, the players create the game themselves by manipulating the materials and resources they find in the virtual world. And the game allows players to play alone or with others.

The game has become so popular that Microsoft was willing to pay $2.5 billion last year to acquire it. Last February, Persson tweeted that the number of registered Minecraft users had reached 100 million.

The iED, a non-profit consortium of universities, colleges and other organizations focused on defining and developing open standards for immersive tech, adopted Minecraft two years ago and provides gaming accounts to its clubs, camps, and member schools.

"We're launching with Minecraft because it was an easy, interesting platform to get things started, and there are a lot of schools that currently use it," Walsh said. "But going forward, we'll have Builder Bowls for traditional virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and all forms of immersion tech."

Walsh, who is also on the faculty at Boston College, is credited with coining the term "immersive learning." His definition of immersive technologies includes VR, AR, simulations, video games and full-body immersive environments such as caves and domes — even 3D printing and robotics. "You can think of it as a palette of technologies," he said.

During the initial round of the inaugural Minecraft Builder Bowl, the competitors are required to base their creations on Disney and Marvel Comics content. Those who make it to Paris (on-site or virtually) will be charged with building educational content around specific historical environs — for example, Virtual Jazz Era Harlem, Paul Revere's Ride, the Boston Tea Party or the Smithsonian's "Day of the Dead" program.

The Builder Bowl is open to students of all ages, from K-12 through higher ed, with no restrictions on the composition of the small teams. The iED originally intended to sort competitors by classes and ages, but after some debate, scrapped the idea. "You've got elementary students out there who can destroy college students in programming and 3D content creation," Walsh said. "We decided, forget the ages. This should be all about skill."

The competition was also originally restricted to iED members. But after receiving hundreds of requests from individual students who had their own Minecraft accounts, the iED opened the competition to all comers.

When it was founded in 2005, the iED focused on fostering immersive learning in higher education, Walsh said. More than 400 universities signed up to participate "right out of the gate." But starting in 2009, the organization began to expand its efforts to include K-12.

"The college kids were losing their minds if they got to do this stuff as part of the classroom experience," Walsh said. "But I had this gnawing feeling in my gut that by the time the students got to college, the job was already done. They were already engaged, and immersion was just icing on the cake. I felt that we needed to get this technology down into the schools where we're losing kids at tremendous rates because they're just not engaged. I felt that we needed to get these exciting technologies into K-12."

The organization's first foray into K-12 was with a pilot program for an economically disadvantaged public school in Colorado called South Park Elementary (really).

"More than 90 percent of the students lived in poverty," Walsh said. "Budgets had been slashed, and they were losing a lot of kids. I got a call from the principal, who had seen some virtual reality content at a college, wondering if we might be able to adapt the technology for their school. There was a zoo about a mile from the school, but the district couldn't afford the gas for a bus trip. So we brought the zoo to them."

The students at South Park Elementary now study wildlife and ecosystems by exploring the Smithsonian's Latino Virtual Museum watershed in an iED cave.

The iED isn't the only educational project developed around the popular game. Youth Digital has just launched Server Design 1, a program that uses Minecraft to teach K-12 students to code, develop applications and design 3D modeling.

"There are a lot of immersive education tools out there that allow you to build three-dimensional immersive content," Walsh said. "But Minecraft is, hands down, the easiest. It has built in gameplay mechanics; it's fun, and kids love it."

The winning entries in the iED's Minecraft Builder Bowl competition will become part of a virtual reality library of educational content that teachers can use in their classes, Walsh said.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Mountain View, CA.