South African university study investigates using Minecraft to teach coding and robotics

A Stellenbosch University (SU) study by Michael Vorster, a Cape Town-based teacher, showed how Minecraft can enhance students’ coding and robotics learning experiences at school.

The study centred on how Minecraft: Education Edition and the Agent, its virtual assistant (“bot”), can be implemented into a classroom environment to support the teaching of coding and robotics.

“Coding and robotics are considered integral components of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for their potential to develop 21st-century skills,” said Vorster.

Vorster found that Minecraft: Education Edition “holds the potential to foster engagement, collaboration, and creative problem-solving skills and prepare learners for future technological landscapes and careers.”

Minecraft is a video game that immerses players in a 3D world. Players can mine and build using resources that appear as blocks.

Minecraft Education was released in 2016 and has a built-in robotics and coding education feature known as Minecraft Agent.

The study involved two modules in which learners participated: a Minecraft Virtual City project and a Minecraft Agent Coding Module.

The Minecraft Virtual City project saw groups of learners within the same Minecraft world develop a vacant plot of land of their choice (residential, commercial or industrial) created by their teacher.

The Minecraft Agent Coding Module involved learners coding their agent to follow instructions such as digging a borehole and building an animal farm.

Learners would create a set of instructions that a robot would follow and “debug” any code that did not work.

The challenging aspect of coding would encourage collaboration between learners and celebration when they complete the task.

Vorster said learners often lose interest in coding and robotics tasks the moment they become too challenging. However, they could stay engaged for much longer when using Minecraft Education.

“A combination of Agent coding tasks and creative building tasks in Minecraft Education holds the potential to ‘creatively engage’ and motivate learners,” Vorster explained.

Matching the learner’s level of skill with the appropriate level of challenge allows them to enter “a state of flow” where they are fully immersed in the exercise without losing focus.

He says learners indicated that teachers’ involvement during lessons “had a direct impact on their cognitive and behavioural engagement with the tasks,” indicating the importance of teacher engagement.

Thus, for assignments to be effective teachers must focus on learner autonomy, independence, and a sense of achievement when creating them.

Vorster mentions that although many schools have introduced coding and robotics courses, man schools cannot afford to implement these programs which remains a hurdle in South Africa.

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South African university study investigates using Minecraft to teach coding and robotics