Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Minecraft Scientists Ep. #1: Fishin' In the Rain (STEM Education)

Minecraft might be the ultimate tool for STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).  Check it out...

(Want to try the experiment yourself? Get instructions in the spreadsheet linked below.)

What Is Science?
Science – experimental science in particular – is like a game of 20 questions we play with Mother Nature. We have a question like “Am I more likely to catch fish on rainy days than on clear days (or does it make a difference)?” Maybe no human being knows the answer, but Mother Nature does. 

Only she isn’t going to just tell us the answer straight up – she doesn’t speak English, after all. We have to be more clever in how we get the answers from her. 

The Scientific Method
One thing we can do is make a guess (form a hypothesis), and then submit the guess to her (run an experiment).  For example, for the question about when you are likely to catch more fish, we might run an experiment like this: go to the same exact fishing spot each day for 10 clear days and 10 rainy days, always arriving and leaving at the same time of day, always using the same rod and tackle, and always using the same bait. (We call this “controlling” for location, time of day, total fishing time, equipment, and bait, and we do it to make sure that it’s the weather and not some other factor like the particular bait we use that is causing any differences in how many fish we catch each day.)

The data we get from the experiment (the number of fish we catch on 10 clear days and 10 rainy days) is Mother Nature’s answer to one of our questions, and it might range from “yes” to “probably yes” to “maybe” to “probably no” to “no” to “no comment.”  (Also: we usually have to analyze the raw data in some way to find out what her answer actually is.) Through playing this game of 20 questions with Mother Nature and pulling together all of the clues we get from our experiments we can get more precise and certain answers to our questions over time. 

21st Century Science Education: Real Science in a Virtual World
The best (and most fun) way of really learning science is by doing real experiments like the 20-day fishing experiment described above. But real experiments like this one often require a lot of money and time, and so we can’t really do that for every kid.  

Or can we? The video shows an example of doing real science in the virtual world of Minecraft a lot faster and less expensively than we could in the real world - and without having to get wet! 

File this under “things I wish they had when we were in school.” 

Science Can Surprise Us!
Swifty7777 and I have run the experiment once (collecting 20 Minecraft days’ worth of data between the two of us – less than an hour of real time) – and, as often happens in science, we were surprised by what we found.  In fact, our results seem to contradict what the Minecraft wiki says is true - they indicate you should catch about 20% more fish in the rain than on a clear day. (Watch the video for details on what we found.)

Who is right – us or the Minecraft wiki?

Your Turn! Try the Experiment Yourself
You can help us figure it out: replicate our experiment (that means run it again the same way – just like real scientists do!) and see if you get the same results. 

Besides, if you really want to learn science, you have to do more than watch videos of other people doing it - you have to get in there and work through it yourself.  We've provided an Excel spreadsheet for you to download here that makes it easy for you to do that.

If you email your filled out spreadsheet to info@i4kd.com with the subject line “Minecraft Fishing Experiment #1”, we’ll post your results so people can compare them to ours.

Happy fishing!

Epic_MC_Player and Swifty7777
// The Minecraft Scientists

Instructions for running the experiment yourself are here (same as link above).

If you liked this "learning with Minecraft" video, you might also like these:
Minecraft Math #1: Numbers - Even, Odd, Prime & Square Root
Minecraft Math #2: Addition, Multiplication & Commutativity


  1. I agree with Swifty...should have taken a boat...or not...but this gives students one more variable to consider. This mini experiment fits nicely with Lucy Calkin's writer's workshop research writing unit. I hope you get lots of people to respond.

    Swifty, I am looking forward to your history blogs. History is exciting and, as a teacher, it is also exciting when a student says they want to write about it! I will be sure to have my students read your history blogs and respond (with my supervision, because, after all, we practice good digital citizenship)

  2. Hello!
    I am a student in the MBE program at UTA. I really enjoyed your post on how Minecraft can be used educationally. I love the real world application of this game. I knew of Minecraft but had never played it myself, so I shared your post with my 6th grade class. Every single student had something to say and contribute, it took me a while to get them to calm down and wait their turn. We talked about Minecraft and what they really enjoyed about it. It seems to have a whole range of different uses in the classroom. I could see using it to begin story lines in language arts or calculations for mathematics. They also started suggesting different experiments that could be tried. Here were a few of their thoughts:

    Test the speed of a regular rail to a powered rail to determine the difference in speeds
    Plant a sapling in different environments to see how fast it grows in each

    Thank you for your informational blog, I have enjoyed reading all of your posts! I hope to see the results of more Minecraft experiments in the future!

    -Audrey Fowler

    1. Hello, Audrey!

      Thanks - Swifty and I are glad you liked the Minecraft post. I agree Minecraft has a whole range of uses in the classroom. There's even a version called "MinecraftEDU" that is designed specifically for classroom use - with special teacher controls, etc. You can learn more about it and see more examples of how it is being used in classrooms here:

      What I find particularly interesting about it is how it creates the possibility of a mix of given and open-ended goals. You can build whatever you want - so there's lots you can do with architecture. But there are also systems - farming, mechanical and electrical systems, etc. that you can build - and even invent. Along the way you have to collect enough food to survive and build things, so there are some structured goals to keep it interesting along the way. It's really a remarkable design that way.

      We love the ideas for experiments that your students suggested, and we'd like to run one or both of them. Even better, we'd really like it if one or more of your students replicated our fishing experiment and sent us the results so we can compare them to ours. See the spreadsheet at the link in the blog post for an explanation of what to do and to repeat the same analysis we did. Let me know if you have questions.

  3. Hello Dr. Connell,

    When I read and saw how you used Minecraft as a tool for using the Scientific Method, I was intrigued and immediately thought of my two sons who are fans of the game.

    My initial response was admiration for the cleverness and creativity of testing the fishing hypothesis using a virtual format. I thought how students might respond to this as well. Those who are familiar with the game and consider themselves a part of the gaming community, no doubt, like my sons, would be motivated. Those who are not gamers (like myself) would also more than likely be interested simply for the novelty of it.

    I also thought about 21st century learning in a virtual setting. I certainly agree with you that there is no substitute for real world, authentic experiences. I like how you acknowledge that time and money are issues school systems face in trying to provide these experiences. To propose a virtual experience seems like a reasonable opportunity.

    I found myself asking several questions as I studied the curriculum.
    1. Is the goal of this curriculum designed to illustrate/teach the scientific method itself or to test the rainy day theory? I wonder what students would think as they play and record their findings. If their results disprove the wiki (as yours showed a more accurate explanation of “bites” vs. “catches”), then would they learn that what is said about the game can’t be trusted or would they learn how to accumulate and compare results to determine?
    2. How effective would the game be on one’s learning if one had limited or no experience with real fishing? Or maybe asked another way, “How would one’s real experience of fishing affect the learning of the goals of this curriculum?”

    I have not ever played Minecraft, but I appreciate the ingenuity of those who created it and the passion of those who play it. However, I will ask my sons if they want to play this experiment out. If they do, then I will send results for comparison.

    Thanks for posting great blogs like this!

    1. Hi, Ken. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      > 1. Is the goal of this curriculum designed to illustrate/teach the scientific method itself or to test the rainy day theory?

      The goal is to provide a constructive experience to ground an understanding of the scientific method. The spreadsheet and video are insufficient to teach the scientific method fully, of course. A science teacher (or a parent) could use this as a grounded experience which is part of a larger series of activities and experiences that would more fully develop the understanding of the scientific method. Connecting the activity to the larger concepts is the sort of thing that science teachers are already good at and should have materials on hand to do at a grade-appropriate level.

      > I wonder what students would think as they play and record their findings. If their results disprove the wiki (as yours showed a more accurate explanation of “bites” vs. “catches”), then would they learn that what is said about the game can’t be trusted or would they learn how to accumulate and compare results to determine?

      Important question. This kind of understanding should be facilitated through dialogue with peers and the teacher. The debrief and dialogue around the activity is where most of the learning would happen, I think. There's a huge opportunity here to engage students in science not only at the process level (conducting individual experiments in isolation) but also in the larger sociological process of science that you point out - sharing and comparing results, discussing differences and implications and variations and further experiments to test and refine theories, etc. Again, not covered in this small activity but something that could be layered on to this experience. For example, our schools have a "Science Night" every year where kids present projects they do individually and in small groups. That could be repurposed one year to have a "Science Summit" where different classes who have conducted the same experiment get together to discuss results and differences, etc.-just like real scientists. I would hope they would start to understand that all knowledge is provisional, and that they always need to be concerned about the validity of information-not so much about trusting the wiki or not.

      > 2. How effective would the game be on one’s learning if one had limited or no experience with real fishing? Or maybe asked another way, “How would one’s real experience of fishing affect the learning of the goals of this curriculum?”

      Great questions. If one had little or no experience with real fishing but understood the concept, then I wouldn't expect that to prevent understanding the concepts explored in the activity, as long as the student understood what was happening in the virtual scenario. If they absolutely had never even heard of the concept of fishing, then one might need to explain that up front or show videos or something to give them that conceptual grounding. This is an important point - sometimes kids can't comprehend what they are hearing or reading because they have no grounded experience of key concepts.

      Someone with extensive experience of fishing might understand the activity better or worse. The differences between real and virtual fishing might distract or might actually create "negative transfer," where they made assumptions about the virtual scenario that were unwarranted, and those assumptions interfered with their understanding of what was happening. This is all part of the normal process of teaching, though-I don't expect there's anything about this activity that we should expect would create especially difficult challenges for students or teachers compared to other materials they typically use. If anything, the concreteness of this experience should facilitate understanding compared to abstractions presented through text and images in a textbook or worksheet-or even a video which they observe passively.

      If your sons want to replicate the experiment, that would be great!

  4. Hi Dr. Connell,

    My name is Claudio Jara and I am also a student in the MBE program at UTA. As a self-professed video game junkie I have played Minecraft as well as games based on Minecraft. I had not considered the educational implications of it. Beyond the fishing activity, the creative aspect is what resonated with me the most. The students I have discussed the game with have surprised me to the lengths some go to create their own environments. I have seen anywhere from Hogwarts to Helmsdeep made by different gamers. My students produce more humble creations but they have time to reflect and create an identity they can be proud of in the game.

    The concept of using a virtual world to attract attention is not new, but no program, environment focused on educational aspects have not been as successful as Minecraft for, in my opinion, a simple reason. These environments are unnatrual. They were created with the purpose of education, making it intrinsically uncool. Minecraft reached cult status in the back channels of the gamer world and has expanded its following enormously. Online communities develop organically and unforced.

    Maybe we should focus on creating a real world, with real physics, that would allow creative freedom and real world experience. This is once again my opinion since I haven't developed an awesome internet platform yet.

    Thank you for the blog, I have enjoyed it and it has provided food for thought.

    1. Hi, Claudio.

      > Maybe we should focus on creating a real world, with real physics, that would allow creative freedom and real world experience.

      This is starting to happen - check out Oculus Rift, for examlpe. And Gerry's Mod is a sandbox game like Minecraft where you can build things. It has much more realistic physics and graphics than Minecraft, though. But the kids I talk to who have used both are less interested in it - my son and his friend just had this conversation last weekend, in fact, comparing the two environments. The more realistic physics of Gerry's Mod seem to make it harder for them to do what they want to do.

      I think part of Minecraft's success has been the relative simplicity that comes with its low-fidelity graphics and physics. Not only does that have implications for kids' enjoyment but it also has implications for learning. Part of what makes science challenging in the real world is that there are many sources of complexity that have nothing to do with the main ideas being explored. Minecraft simplifies the world to the point where you can really focus on the key ideas. Of course, to transfer the insights about science to the real world ultimately students will need to operate real equipment in the real world. But there is great value in starting with a simplified environment - that's how most learning in every culture is organized, in fact - starting simple and then adding complexity.

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  6. I am a professor at a university who teaches a course on the Scientific Method. Can you possibly point me in the direction of other resources like these, that allow the use of games to teach concepts? Thank you!

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