Minecraft Stars in STEM Classes Where Learning Means Playing

The 3-D game helps students who need different methods to learn subjects including math.

by Daniel Hidalgo, The Miami Herald / May 5, 2016

(TNS) — Neydy Gomez first came across Zaniac Learning while researching different methods through which she could teach her daughter math. Gomez says that because her daughter learns differently than most, she struggled with the more traditional methods she learned in school. Zaniac's curriculum appealed to Gomez because of its focus on teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) concepts through what she calls "learning through play."

In May 2015, after two-and-a-half years of planning, Gomez opened South Miami's Zaniac Learning campus and is a co-owner of the franchise. The campus, like other Zaniac locations, utilizes many innovative ways of teaching STEM, and its most popular courses are based on the popular video game Minecraft. This video game allows children to build virtual worlds using 3-D cubes, much like the generation that preceded them might have used Legos. The game has been used to teach several concepts including math and physics.

Because the Zaniac educational philosophy emphasizes use of technology and game-based learning for younger children, a key strategy is to hire young, motivated instructors with backgrounds in STEM. In her search for candidates to execute the Zaniac vision, Gomez set up a recruitment booth at a University of Miami career fair. That's when she met Sherman Hewitt, a 21-year-old computer science student at UM and current instructor at Zaniac.

"Our profile of what we look for here [at Zaniac] is peer-to-peer learning so that kids feel like they are being taught by an older cousin or sibling — someone closer in age that is easier to relate to," said Gomez. "Sherman was literally the first person I met when I was looking for instructors, and he was the first hire I made," said Gomez.

Since Hewitt started at Zaniac last summer, he has been working on development of a new Minecraft course to teach children about space exploration and orbital mechanics. Hewitt wrote the curriculum himself over the course of 18 days and has been teaching it since they started pilot testing the course last September. The course, "Game-based Learning: Minecraft Galaxy," was part of a national rollout in April. It is now being taught at a variety of Zaniac franchises across the country.

Minecraft Galaxy uses a Minecraft "mod" — or modified program — called Galacticraft. The mod allows children to perform unique tasks that the standard game does not allow, such as the ability to build rockets and blast them into space. The six-week course takes students through a "storyline" that starts off on Earth, spans out through the Earth's atmosphere to the International Space Station, to the Moon, then Mars, and a challenge at the end has students go through all three stages to get back to Earth.

"The most difficult part was seeing how each lesson is meant to fit within a 90-minute time frame, because there's so much information out there about space," said Hewitt. "I had to find the information, find a way to organize it, and present it in a way that's interesting."

Originally, Hewitt started at UM as a pharmacy student and had no particular interest in education. After a short time, he decided to switch his major to computer science once he developed an interest in coding, as well as software and application development. He is also studying journalism and has written for his college paper, The Hurricane.

He identified a particular experience a few weeks before meeting with Gomez as important. Hewitt was walking UM's campus when he encountered a family — a father and his three children —asking for directions. After offering to help the family find where they were headed, the father asked Hewitt about his field of study. One of the kids asked if it had anything to do with video games.

"I explained to them that, yeah, all games are made out of code. They were just blown away by that moment because they play video games all the time, but they have no idea how they're made," said Hewitt. "In that moment, I felt like I might have inspired someone to pursue something that they never would have considered."

Hewitt said that he believes the popularity of Minecraft among young people can be attributed to its ability to allow kids to "do anything they want without consequences."

"You can build the tallest tower, the biggest castle, that you made with your own hands, you're super proud of it, and when you're done you can blow it all up if you want," Hewitt said.

Hewitt came up with the idea for Minecraft Galaxy after noticing a drop off in engagement from students. After their introductory Minecraft course that teaches children the basics of playing the game, some kids at Zaniac — as young as 5 or 6 — were thrust straight into a Minecraft physics course.

"I know this one kid that had a blast in intro, and it was perfect, but once we got to the physics concepts, which is something even I struggled with a little bit in high school, he completely checked out. By the next class, he was gone and had no interest whatsoever," Hewitt said. "Things like that inspired me to think of some concept that is interesting and easier for kids to grasp."

Zaniac's national arm is located in Park City, Utah. The company is named after one of its co-founders, Paul Zane Pilzer, an American entrepreneur who has had success across many fields including banking, health care, education, and government, to name a few. Part of Pilzer's philosophy for Zaniac was to target young people — specifically Sidh Oberoi.

Oberoi was an 18-year-old college junior studying medicine at the University of Utah when he caught Pilzer's eye. Oberoi, now 23, is president and co-founder of the national brand. He believes that Hewitt's age and experiences help mold his ability to teach kids and execute Zaniac's "out-of-the-box" strategies.

"It's more than him being young. It's him understanding the technology and how to utilize it. That's something that other educators just don't have embedded in them," said Oberoi.

Oberoi went on to say that what separates Zaniac's strategies from traditional education and other tutoring services is its focus on different types of learning.

"The concern is that we're developing curriculum that is very cookie-cutter and traditionalized ... a one-size fits all model," Oberoi said. "The new generation does learn in different ways. Some do better with visual learning, others do better with hands-on learning, and all kids learn better with experiences and practical application. There's not enough being done to help students utilize these diverse sets of tools and skills that will be available to them in the future."

©2016 Miami Herald, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. 

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