Meet the geography teachers and developers using Minecraft to teach climate science.
In classrooms all over the world, children are being taught about the world they're going to inherit. Large-scale erosion, melting ice caps, population growth and deforestation fill the pages of geography textbooks, but for some students in elementary school, it's not only hard to imagine -- it's terrifying.
How do you teach a child about bushfires that could engulf their home? How do you teach a child about how floods and rising sea levels loom over parts of their country?
In a place like Australia, where climate catastrophes are not only common, but becoming increasingly ever present, it's all the more important to prepare children for the future.
What better tool than the game they already spend all their free time playing?
Minecraft is the answer. If you build it, they will learn.
As educational resources go, it's hard to find one with more student enthusiasm than Minecraft.
Students are actively engaging with lessons, racing to their desks to use the open-play platform in exciting and innovative ways -- all under the supervision of teachers who've connected the dots between curriculum and creation. It's fair to say that Minecraft has blurred the line between game and tool better than almost any other popular game of the past decade.
Despite having been used as an educational tool for a while now -- Minecraft Education was published on Nov. 1, 2016, and the NSW Department of Education has since provided free access to Minecraft: Education Edition to all NSW Government schools -- the game is starting to shine even more brightly as a resource for educating students on the issue of climate change.
Warwick Goodsell, a geography teacher from New South Wales, has been using Minecraft in his classroom to great effect for a few years now. His students work together on a server where they create and build solutions to geographical issues like erosion, pollution, urban planning and more.
But it's not just sending kids off to the computer room without a plan in place. The topics at hand require some serious thinking. Preparation is half the battle.
"You've got 20 minutes of explaining with theory -- the content, the concepts -- then you roll it into class discussion, mind mapping it on the board. Then they take those ideas and try to integrate those into Minecraft," Goodsell explained.
"For instance, we started to look at livability and wellbeing, where you get to design a town or city," he said.
He begins by asking students questions like "How would you live there?" and "What are the transport links?" before giving them a specific problem to solve as a class. From smaller-scale issues like civil planning through to natural disaster preparation, these lessons enable students to think critically and use visual representations in Minecraft to better understand the reality of climate change.
"They had to create a town that would allow wind flow to go through -- for air pollution and for COVID -- and as a result they were looking at, OK, how do you build a street design that would allow airflow?" he said.
"Some of our top kids worked out, 'How about we do low buildings rather than high buildings, then you've got more air movement.' … It links to the curriculum so well. You're not trying to shoehorn something into the classroom -- it's creative, and it's really flexible."
In accordance with the New South Wales Education Standards Authority, key curriculum outcomes are top of mind. Minecraft is helping take students who struggled to hit high-level learning standards and providing them with a visual reference and playground to experiment.
This in turn helps students to achieve top-level results that they may not have otherwise been able to reach. It especially makes a difference for students who learn best kinesthetically or visually.
So over the course of a term or semester, Goodsell set more challenging geographical hypotheticals for his students. From airflow in a single street comes managing entire cities, constructing dams and protecting their towns from natural disasters. With the help of mods and programs specifically designed to teach climate science, the scope for this kind of project is immense.
In 2021, Australian company NRMA Insurance (in collaboration with creative agency Thinkerbell) launched Climate Warriors, a free interactive game available on Minecraft Education Edition and Minecraft Marketplace, designed to teach children as young as 7 how to protect themselves and their homes from bushfires.
Given how bushfires ravaged Australia's east coast in early 2020, it's a topic that could potentially hit close to home for some families. It was important to deliver this lesson tactfully, on a level that made the younger students feel comfortable.
Thus, Climate Warriors was born. Collaborating with UK Minecraft collective Blockworks to build a small Australian coastal village, the Climate Warriors team structured its game's story (complete with kangaroos) using NRMA's real-world data and climate change research. This real data was implemented to demonstrate how the climate is changing -- and how extreme weather events are becoming far more common.
The game takes inspiration from the actions of firefighters during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, one of Australia's worst-ever bushfire disasters with 173 fatalities and as many as 400 individual fires raging up the eastern coast of Victoria.
In game, players work together to perform safety drills and preparations, including installing rooftop sprinklers, testing the limits of building materials and performing rescue missions in a helicopter. They learn of the impacts through experiencing it themselves.
As a result, students learn how to behave in emergency situations and how to safeguard their homes, as well as how to discuss these objectively confronting topics amongst themselves.
James Delaney, founder of Blockworks, worked to keep these necessities top of mind as his team created the expansive world.
"It's such a sensitive topic that affects a lot of people, so we had to make sure what we were doing was factually correct -- it's a health and safety issue," he said.
"Obviously it's a frightening experience for anyone, and we wanted that sense of danger to be there, without being overly too graphic. At the end of the day, Minecraft is still a game played by quite young children."
Stephen Elford, a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and Minecraft Global Mentor, collaborated with NRMA to develop a lesson plan and student worksheet to go alongside Climate Warriors -- linking it to the curriculum in a way that makes it easy for teachers to bring it into their classrooms even if they've never played Minecraft before.
From the very beginning, those two elements were the benchmark that the project needed to hit: accessible to teachers and less confronting to students.
"One of the key goals I've got is to make sure that the plan is absolutely clear-cut about what the students will be doing, how teachers can support them and where the really good, meaty learning areas can be -- where teachers can pause the game and have a solid conversation with their students about what's going on," said Elford.
With an increased focus on soft skills in the classroom -- such as collaboration, conflict resolution, high-order thinking and self control -- it also opens students up to an environment where they can make mistakes without facing real-world consequences.
"It's a really safe space for students to make mistakes and learn," he said. "While it has real-world repercussions, tearing someone's build down in Minecraft or throwing lava all over it is not the same."
And it means that teachers can have a conversation with students about the difference between the online world and the real world. It provokes questions: How would you react if this happened to you in real life?
"That kind of intuitive understanding about the synchronicity of the digital and the real world -- and the repercussions of things that people do online -- I think is a really important message," said Elford.
If you've been teaching for decades and you've not played Minecraft before, it's intimidating to consider using it in a lesson -- especially if your tech literacy isn't at the level of younger teachers coming through university.
It's the one major roadblock to Minecraft's integration into the geography curriculum. While the resources are ready and available, a lot of teachers and parents still hold a lot of hesitancy surrounding games in the classroom.
In 2017, Deakin University spearheaded a three-year research project aimed at evaluating the impact of video games on disengaged students in the classroom, with the response overwhelmingly indicating that students responded positively to the inclusion.
In its 2021 report, the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association in Australia found that 78% of respondents said video games helped teachers connect with students, and 76% said video games helped schools remain relevant and up to date.
According to the IGEA survey, "Four in five adults who play video games either agree or strongly agree that video games can be used to help students overcome learning difficulties and nearly as many believe video games can be used to help students cope with stress."
But whether you're talking about climate science or education, the dissenting voices of traditionalists and naysayers can be overwhelming. For Goodsell, who uses the game in his classroom regularly, it was important to address the concerns of parents and colleagues alike in the early days before it became routine.
"If you're providing that structure around Minecraft and being able to come out with lesson outcomes -- a bit in their workbook or online portfolio about what I did and how it relates to a question or the topic they're looking at -- parents are a lot more comfortable with it," he said.
But half the battle is getting teachers the training they need to use it as an effective tool.
"[For teachers] there's a hesitancy to put yourself in a situation where kids know more than you," he said. "But then they always will. They see the updates, they're watching the YouTube channels. … We're time-poor as it is, so a lot of people just tend to put it in the 'too hard' basket."
But in most Australian states, teachers are obligated to go through 100 hours of regular professional development to keep their skills up to date, and one of the options is Minecraft training.
This issue is that, more often than not, teachers elect to align their professional development with their school's official improvement plan. So if you're teaching in a school that doesn't have as much access to technology or doesn't have it as a high priority, it can be challenging to justify further training on how to introduce Minecraft into the classroom.
But it only takes one person to start. Fortunately, Minecraft has already collated a bank of resources aimed directly at making this easier for teachers.
"As time has progressed and more quality educational maps are being produced, that fear [of the unknown] is being somewhat alleviated by quality content that teachers are comfortable using," said Elford.
"And it doesn't necessarily mean the teachers need to know how to play -- Climate Warriors, for instance, is something where students can play in small groups on their own and the teacher doesn't need to manage that. The game manages the students and the way they're behaving."
It comes down to building in-game lesson plans that complement the curriculum and -- when changes are required -- adapting the game to better suit learning outcomes. After all, when used at its maximum, Minecraft isn't just a tool for engagement, it's a tool for real, measurable and meaningful learning.
With programs like Climate Warriors and with game mods where smelting ore or cooking in a furnace create in-game emissions comparable to those of real life, it's easy to see how well the game can align with geography learning outcomes. It can teach students to plan, to adapt, to overcome and -- critically -- to do so together.
So when it comes time for students to walk into a geography or HSIE classroom and hear about all the scary issues bearing down on our climate, a tool like Minecraft: Education Edition could be the difference between a general awareness and a thorough understanding -- not only of what is happening to the climate and world around us, but how to address it.
Because these are the people who will have to address it. And if something as simple as Minecraft can prepare them for that, it's worth giving a shot.
"As a teacher it's been fantastic because [it's] a digital resource that can be trusted," said Goodsell.
"It has so much potential, and I think it's only going to get bigger."