Science Hunters is a well-established project which delivers science outreach to schools and the wider community using the hugely popular computer game Minecraft. Minecraft is a computer game which allows free building, a bit like virtual Lego, but set in a simulated world made up of biomes exhibiting real world properties. There are weather systems, the animals and plants found there can grow and multiply, water and lava move and behave as you would expect them to, and resources can be mined and crafted into new things. There are also many types of blocks available that can be used to build creations. It is the flexibility within the game and its popularity that makes it a great platform with which to engage children in science.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, a typical school session involved a hands on introduction to a science topic, followed by the children building Minecraft creations, or exploring pre-made Minecraft maps, related to the topic. As most schools lack the resources to access Minecraft, we take in our own project laptops for use. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK in March 2020 and schools closed for Lockdown 1, school visits were halted. Although by September, most schools had fully reopened, it was with restrictions. This made face to face delivery by our team impossible, and thanks to the Public Engagement Covid19 grant, funded by NERC, I took on a trial to switch our school visits to remote online delivery.
The key challenge was encouraging schools to take part. Given the education gap that the pandemic had caused (and continues to) and with the uncertainty of future school closures, teaching time is precious. As such, a session was devised that would support part of the environmental science curriculum that they would be teaching anyway; classification of living things. The session was developed and trialled with a school that I had close connections with, before being finalised and rolled out to other schools.
The other main challenge was how to deliver the practical Minecraft part. Most schools do not have Minecraft or own computers capable of running it, and most teachers lack experience and confidence in its use. This meant that most schools would have to borrow some equipment, though as many of the hands on resources for the introduction part of the session as possible were donated to the school.
The session also had to be easy for the teacher to deliver and so all teachers were given training (via an online meeting), resources and the support they needed to run the session on the day in conjunction with myself. Laptops were delivered in advance of the day (in a covid secure way).
The session was initially aimed at children in Year 5/6, the top end of primary because they were likely to have experience with Minecraft and be more adept at using the Minecraft game controls, ultimately making things easier for the teacher.
The school bubble system meant children could still work in pairs which most prefer and encourages peer-peer learning, making classroom management easier and ultimately results in a more successful session.
Our traditional session format and delivery had to be revised. It would now start with a live feed introduction about the Science Hunters project from myself (also available as a pre-recorded option in case internet reliability was compromised), followed by a pre-recorded interactive video on the topic. The video had places to pause and allow the teacher to engage with the children in discussion and activities using the hands on resources provided. Following a final live video feed from myself to explain the task at hand and go over the Minecraft controls the class had time to work in pairs on the project and engage in some supporting activities and worksheets. During all of this time, I was present on the video feed, able to advise and support the teacher as required before rounding up and finishing with a Q&A session.
So does it work? Are children as engaged as they would have been through a physical visit? Well, it appears so. Feedback collected from the children showed that as many were as positive about the online visit as for a standard school conducted by myself during the last 2 academic years.
Comments included ‘I loved it because you make learning fun with Minecraft’ and ‘It was really fun and I learnt some new stuff about science’. Feedback gained from the teachers was highly positive with 100% of them saying that they would do it again and recommend it to other schools. Many comments suggested that the children had benefited hugely from it, not only educationally but by having some much needed fun in these difficult times. Some specific ones included ‘A great interactive method of teaching the science curriculum’ and ‘Encouraged teamwork and problem-solving skills as well as providing an engaging context for the science knowledge.’
Although I was present during the whole session online, at times it seemed like I was more of an observer. However, I felt this was a reflection that I had done my job – to provide a pre-planned easy to lead session which was smoothly delivered by a well prepped and confident teacher. It was a joy to watch all my plans come to fruition, and to see the resources I had prepared being used just as I imagined, but with the flexibility for the teacher to adapt it to their own style and for their own class. Yes, there were some technical issues, but there were back up plans in place to deal with every eventuality. There was a lot of hard work at the start to devise the initial session and there were some adaptations along the road but it was worth it to see the joy, enthusiasm and happiness emanating from the classroom. It reminded me of just how much I miss doing it in person.
Dr Jackie Hartley has a BSc in Zoology, a PhD in Animal Behaviour and a PGCE is Secondary Science. After teaching for over 15 years, she joined the Science Hunters team at Lancaster University where she develops and delivers Science Hunters sessions.