Aiming to instil problem-solving and STEM skills from an early age, computer-science educators are tapping the Minecraft gaming universe to teach children coding in an online world they’re already part of.

Newly launched in Australia by Prodigy Learning, the cloud-based Coding in Minecraft course is has been targeted at 7 to 16-year-olds and is aligned with Australia’s Digital Technologies curriculum. Schools need to sign up for the program.

Leveraging the Minecraft: Education Edition version of the game, the course aims to teach students to code using the object-based Microsoft MakeCode, JavaScript, and Python.

MakeCode includes a range of Minecraft-based tutorials in areas such as agent design, environment building, block coding, and more.

Students participating in the Coding in Minecraft program can follow a formal certification pathway including introduction, intermediate, and advanced courses including Intro to Coding using MakeCode; Intermediate Coding Using MakeCode; Advanced Coding Using JavaScript or Python.

Students completing the entire program can sit a final exam – covering areas like algorithm design, block-based coding, and text-based coding – that earns them a formal Coding in Minecraft capstone credential.

The goal of the program – first launched in the United States in 2019 with training provider Certiport – “is to break down the barriers for students and educators to increase uptake of computer science in schools,” Prodigy Learning CEO Andrew Flood said.

“By immersing the curriculum and assessment in Minecraft: Education Edition, we capture the imagination of young learners through one of the most popular games in the world and support them to learn to code, design and problem solve.”

Laying the foundation stones

With reports of 140 million active players as of March – up from 126m in May 2020 – Minecraft has become a massive money-spinner for parent company Microsoft, which grossed an estimated $569m ($US415m) in revenues from the game in the last year alone.

The platform had over 3.2 million players online at one recent count, with a massive share of those school children – for whom gaming is by far the most popular pastime.

Learning providers and educators have moved to leverage Minecraft’s massive popularity, sharing lessons and creating group challenges to engage students in programming, problem-solving, and lateral-thinking skills in students from an early age.

Microsoft runs regular Minecraft-based educational challenges and recently partnered with indigenous education firm Indigital to launch the second annual Indigital Minecraft Education Challenge.

“I was surprised at how versatile the learning could be inside Minecraft, and what the students were able to create from their research and newfound knowledge,” said Samantha Ephraims, a digital technologies and STEM teacher at Queensland’s Kalkie State School, which won the 2020 prize with a Minecraft project imagining how Bundaberg could look in 2030 if it leveraged First Nations knowledge.

The Minecraft-driven research and collaboration project “became part of lunchtimes and spare time,” she said, “and kids were bringing me things and talking to each other.”

Use of video games in education has proven to be a great equaliser by engaging students in a way that they enjoy – and follow-up surveys suggest that programs like Coding in Minecraft do spark an interest in STEM for many students.

Wales’ Rhondda Cynon Taf Education Authority, an early Coding in Minecraft participating jurisdiction, found that 97 per cent of students completing a credential through the program “expressed an interest in going on to study computer science at a higher level as their next step on their learning journey,” said strategy officer Martyn Silizen.

Other programs have seen a similar response.

“Plenty of students have little or no interest in arts and creativity but find themselves using coding to create interesting and expressive games and stories while also improving their STEM skills,” said Nick Berryman, co-founder of kids-coding initiative Codekids, which recently expanded its reach with new courses offered at Perth Modern School.

That school joins the legions working to use new, interactive teaching methods to teach kids skills in areas like Robotics, Python, and the student-focused Scratch – whose creator, Mitchel Resnick, told an ACS event that “the analogy between coding and writing” reflected the importance of blending creativity with practical skills.

“When these kids are creating these projects, they’re learning to organise and express themselves and share their ideas,” he said, “just as you do when you learn to write.”