Volume 58 | Number 3 | September 2012 teachingscience 55
Minecraft is a multiplayer sandbox video game based in a virtual world modeled on the real
world. Players are able to build and craft everyday items using blocks. The cubic geometry
of Minecraft lends itself to the teaching of various academic subjects. Minecraft also has a
functioning ecology, with chemistry and physics aspects interwoven within the game that can
be used to develop the scientic literacy of players. Here I describe various key scientic and
mathematical concepts that are able to be modelled with the game for use in the classroom.
By Daniel Short
Teaching scientic concepts
using a virtual world - Minecraft
History of Ecological BasEd VidEo gamEs
The Earth based simulation ‘Balance of the Planet’
(1990) was designed to teach the user about global
warming, jobs, health, food, wealth, and energy use.
‘Sim Earth’ (1993) was more of a simulation experience
with players able to control the planet’s atmosphere,
temperature and landmasses. They would then place
various forms of life on the planet and watch them
evolve. The game modeled the Gaia hypothesis
of James Lovelock (Lovelock, 1987) and one of
the options available is the simplied “Daisyworld”
model. Spore (2008) was written by the same author
as Sim Earth and allowed the player to control the
development of a species from its beginnings as a
microscopic organism to an intelligent and social
Various web based games focused on single scientic
topics are available online [http://www.bunnygame.
org, http://www.smogcity.com, etc.]. These are usually
short activities designed around a central concept or
theme. Web based games are in their most basic form
gloried ash cards which by design lack the depth of
content available in games such as Minecraft and as
such are not the focus of this article.
minEcraft in tHE classroom
The use of any video game, designed more for
entertainment than learning is likely to raise the
eyebrows in academia. I believe that pre-empting the
‘game’ as an educational tool, having well dened
goals and constraining which elements of Minecraft
are employed, will allow for its use in a variety of
lessons in different subject areas. Introducing the
game to a novice can be a difcult task due to the
lack of instructions, for this reason many tutorial maps
have been constructed. The previously mentioned
MinecraftEDU mod is the perfect way for a novice to
be introduced to the game.
The construction of full lessons to be used either in
the classroom or online may take the form of single
activities integrated into the normal classroom based
lesson or full-blown adventure maps with a beginning,
middle, and ending scenario. The following subsections
provide an overview of how Minecraft has been used
to-date in various disciplines, including examples of my
own uses in a college based setting:
With the advent of video games becoming a
mainstream form of entertainment, overtaking movies
in the amount of money grossed, as well as the amount
of time spent playing them, they offer an alternative,
if somewhat controversial way in which educational
content can be delivered. As with all types of learning,
students need direction and opportunities to reect on
their work (http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/02/17/
Minecraft is a sandbox (open world, freedom of how
to play) building (analogous to Lego construction
sets) video game written in Java and published by
the company Mojang. It was released in May 2009 on
the home computer platforms with an Apple iOS and
Android release in 2012. The game play is centered on
creativity and building, with players building (crafting)
constructions out of textured cubes in a 3-dimensional
world. The game starts with the player placed on a
world generated by the program consisting of biomes
containing plains, mountains, caves, deserts and bodies
of water. The games time system consists of day-night
cycles during which they are attacked by aggressive
‘mobs’. In addition to the aforementioned ‘survival’
mode, there is also a ‘creative’ mode for building
only. The game play includes the use of electrical
circuits and logic gates which function much like their
real-world counterparts. The game is appropriate for
ages 6 and up with a developmental learning curve
such that parts of the game (such as circuit building)
can be mastered at higher grade levels. Use of the
game in schools as an educational tool has increased
signicantly since the game’s full release.
Minecraft as an educational tool has its own wiki
‘mod’ (modication) (http://minecraftedu.com/),
and google group (https://groups.google.com/
forum/?fromgroups#!forum/minecraft-teachers ). The mod
is an additional piece of software that allows instructors to
control the game and game users. For example, students
can be frozen, teleported, given access to blocks etc. The
survival aspect of the game can be removed and the
educational aspects focused on. Several teachers from
various countries have developed instructional lessons using
the MinecraftEDU experience; these range from simple
tutorials on how to use the game in class to instructional
units, some of which are described below.
56 teachingscience Volume 58 | Number 3 | September 2012
results in an unsustainable environment. This concept
is commonly illustrated in the classroom with candy
and/or goldsh crackers. To illustrate this principle using
Minecraft, I built a self-contained world map inside a
dome containing only trees. The model is played in two
rounds, in round 1 the students are told to collect as
much wood from the forested area as possible. Being
a ‘commons’ type area, the space is very quickly laid
to waste, which illustrates Harding’s principle. In round
2, students are allowed to plant new trees and bound
their harvest areas with fences, in which only they
are allowed to farm. This leads to a more sustainable
production of lumber.
One of the major differences between the game and
real life is that most blocks (e.g., wood, stone, brick, dirt)
do not fall when surrounding structures are removed,
with the exception of sand and gravel. Gravity has an
effect on most non-block objects in the game. Water
exists in the liquid and solid states in the game. Source
blocks are stationary but will ow if the block next to the
source is removed. Water ows downhill and may be
used to move items from place to place.
Minecraft uses a color system of dyes which can be
combined to create new colors. There are currently 16
dyes, including seven ‘primary’ dyes (red, yellow, blue,
green, white, black and brown) seven ‘secondary’ dyes
(orange, cyan, purple, gray, light blue, pink and lime),
and two ‘tertiary’ dyes (magenta, light gray).
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
Atmospheric refraction is displayed in game with a red
sky during sunrise and sunset (Figure 3). The moon shows
all eight lunar phases.
Minecraft maps of the human body, including the
vascular system, nerve cells and an animal cell are
currently in development. Since these structures are not
part of the normal game, these maps often make use
of custom textures in order to visualize the component
parts. Students are immersed in a visual 3-dimensional
environment and are able to move in all directions. Cell
functions are able to be investigated by moving and
placing blocks in order to mimic cellular activity.
For example, in a map designed around the human
body, the premise of the map would be similar to the
movie ‘Fantastic Voyage’, in that your friend is sick and
you/the class has to go inside his body to cure him
by solving puzzles and ghting bacteria and viruses,
while all the time exploring the different aspects of
the human body. Maps such as these are currently in
development for integration into MinecraftEDU.
Perhaps Minecraft’s strongest application lies in the
area of the biological sciences, specically ecology.
Biomes are climatically and geographically dened
as similar climatic conditions on the Earth, such as
communities of plants, animals, and soil organisms,
and are often referred to as ecosystems. In Minecraft,
biomes are created by the map generator and display
different heights, temperatures (indicated by leaf color,
water color, presence or absence of water or desert),
humidities and foliage. Examples include: Forest, Taiga,
Swampland, Extreme Hills, Desert, Plains Ocean and
Tundra (Figure 1).
Trees vary in height depending on the biome in which
they are located. Tree canopies are generated with
leaf blocks which can be sheared to produce hedges.
Trees come in three different types: oak, birch and
pine. Trees require light and soil to grow. Trees may be
farmed and are required for building simple tools. In the
absence of coal, wood can be smelted into charcoal.
Real-world related animals include pigs, cows,
chickens, sheep, squids and wolves. Hostile animals,
ctional characters called ‘mobs’ can be switched
off during game play. Animals may be farmed and
reproduce when bred.
An enclosed Minecraft world (Figure 2) may be
used to demonstrate Hardings, ‘The Tragedy of the
Commons’ (Harding, 1968) (Grade 6 in US schools).
When a population (a group of several players) inhabit
the same area utilizing the same shared resources,
those resources are rapidly depleted. This ultimately
Figure 1: A typical Minercraft biome.
Figure 2: ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ map.
Figure 3: Sunrise over Minecraft world.
Volume 58 | Number 3 | September 2012
Figure 6: (a) Integer patterns in Fibonacci world. Each
integer (1, 2, 3, 4, …etc has x number of patterns
formed from blocks which correspond to the
(b) Fibonacci numbers in 3-dimensions.
Minecraft uses x, y, z coordinates to establish a player’s
location. North, east, south and west are dened in-game
with the sun rising in the east and clouds owing west.
Navigation is possible through the use of coordinates,
a compass and maps. Companies such as Maple are
experimenting with displaying 3-dimensional images of
mathematical functions (graphs) in the Minecraft world.
Viewed from inside the game, the functions are able to
be explored and changed in real time.
I have constructed a map called ‘Fibonacci World’
which uses geometric shapes and various block pattern
puzzles for discovery learning (Figure 6). These exercises
are based on regular classroom exercises adapted with
Minecraft features block circuits which can be crafted into
a number of logic gates similar to real life digital electronics.
Large assemblies of logic gates can be formed into digital
circuits such as: adding machines. Power is provided via
torches and repeaters which can be used for applying
timing delays to your circuit. More advanced circuits can
be crafted such as delay circuits, monostable circuits and
clock and pulse generators. Large scale circuits have
been crafted such as a 3-D stereolithography interface
with the real world (Elford, 2012).
Smelting of iron and gold ore using a furnace produces
the pure metal. Sand may be heated in order to make
glass or turned into sandstone. Cakes can be crafted
from wheat, eggs, milk and sugar. Explosives (TNT) may
be crafted from gunpowder and sand unlike its real-
world multistep preparation.
Stephen Elford, an Australian primary school teacher,
has developed a basic states of matter and phase
changes simulation (solid, liquid, gas) using players as
particles. A four-by-four area is bounded with wooden
blocks, this area simulates the solid phase. Students
enter the area and are told that they are particles of
matter with limited mobility. The area is made larger
by burning (simulating an increase in temperature),
leading to a phase change to the state of a liquid.
Students have more freedom of motion as the liquid
phase but are still constrained by the boundaries set
a further distance away. Finally, the last boundary is
removed simulating the gas phase (Elford, 2012).
David Vreman has constructed a 3-dimensional
periodic table of the elements, which uses sign posts
to highlight key properties and uses of each element
(Figure 4). Whilst chemistry is perhaps not the strongest
component of the game, a modication (mod) of the
game called ‘MineChem’ is available for free which
allows further exploration of the elements.
Addition/subtraction, multiplication/division and ratios
are the most obvious mathematical concepts put
forward by the game, for example raw wood from trees
becomes 4 wooden planks, 9 iron bars make one block
of iron, 24 pieces of iron, gold or diamond make up a
full set of armor. It is possible to set questions and use
algebraic formulas on signs, walls and books.
Measurements of perimeter, area and volume are
required to make symmetrical buildings with centered
doors and windows. Geometry is important in the
generation of circles from squares blocks. Circles may
be generated in pixel art and transcribed to block
patterns (Figure 5).
Figure 4: The periodic table in Minecraft.
Figure 5: Circles in Minecraft.
58 teachingscience Volume 58 | Number 3 | September 2012
Ever thought of CONTRIBUTING
to TEACHING SCIENCE?
My goal with this article was to give some insight into
the current happenings with what I believe to be an
incredible opportunity for science instruction. From
an academic’s perspective, beyond the instructional
opportunities that have been addressed here, the
most exciting aspect of Minecraft is the ability for
collaborative lesson design between instructors. The
game lends itself to multiple users inhabiting the same
world, be it instructor-student or instructor-instructor.
Minecraft, is in my view, a game-changer in the eld of
Lovelock, J.E. (1987)
Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
University Press, USA.
Harding, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons.
, Vol. 13,
No. 3859, pp. 1243-1248.
Elford, S. (2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quDk9osR1Cc
Kirriemuir, J. & McFarlane, A. (2003) Use of Computer and Video
Games in the Classroom. Proceedings of the Level Up Digital
Games Research Conference, Universiteit Utrecht, Netherlands.
(v) Geology and Geography
Cliffs, hills, mountains and ravines are generated by
the game and are unique to each map. Beaches are
generated next to oceans or lakes. If a lake is generated
in a snow biome, it will freeze. The ability to congure
a map using data imported from a Geographical
Information System (GIS) has seen the development
of Minecraft analogues to real world terrain. It is now
possible to model any location on the Earth’s surface.
Types of rock found in the game include obsidian,
sandstone, stone, cobblestone and gravel. Minerals
include diamond, gold, iron, clay and lapus lazuli.
Mods have been developed to increase the number of
available minerals. The minerals behave much like their
real world counterparts with metals craftable into tools
and clay being craftable into brick.
The use of video games in the classroom can
supplement the use of other media, educational
programming, web based videos, etc. Video game use
represents another tool in the teacher’s toolkit. Research
suggests that simulations and immersive virtual worlds
are increasingly being used to supplement traditional
teaching methods Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2003).
Minecraft itself is already being used to illustrate
scientic concepts in classrooms across the world. At
the present time, development of educational activity
maps to be used as part of lesson plans is increasing.
A number of teachers are sharing their development
process using a combination of online forums and
videos. Development of maps is not currently limited to
teachers. A number of users of the game have created
maps either as academic projects or proof of concept.
A Minecraft world can be designed by the instructor
which would host a series of lessons in any one or a
combination of the above areas. Exposure to any of
the above concepts would have a positive effect on
students, exposing them to various scientic concepts
which can be related to real life experiences.
aBout tHE autHor:
Daniel Short is an Assistant Professor of Science.
He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Liverpool
(England) in Environmental Science, a M.Sc.
from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) in
Environmental Chemistry and a B.Sc. from the
University of Leicester in Combined Studies. Dr.
Short’s research interests include sampling and
monitoring, fate and transport, and modeling of
environmental pollutants. He currently teaches
both introductory and upper level courses to
Science and Engineering students at Robert
Morris University (USA).
Teaching Science publishes refereed articles contributing to the theory and practice of
science education. It aims to include material of interest to all sectors of the science education
community—primary, secondary, tertiary and trainees. Teaching Science invites primary and
secondary teachers, teacher educators, community-based science education ofcers, pre-
service teachers, and others with an interest in improving the quality of science teaching to
submit articles. Teaching Science particularly values contributions from teachers who have
researched their own classroom practice. While each issue of the journal usually carries a theme,
this is not exclusive. Good writing on any science education issue is welcomed.
Prospective contributors should go to the ASTA website, www.asta.edu.au to
download the guildines for contributors and the Manuscript Submission Form.