Mining for learning in the built environment

As work begins on the implementation of the UCEM assessment strategy (2020-2025) we are beginning to think creatively about new assessment methodologies appropriate for the built environment.

As part of our research, last week we were visited virtually by Chris Gutteridge (senior developer in the Research Applications Support Team at the University of Southampton) who gave us an introduction to his vast and varied Minecraft developments. For those who are unfamiliar with Minecraft it is a sandbox video game available in a Windows edition and a Java edition that lets users engage with an infinite 3D world made out of blocks. Within this world you can build structures, craft using raw materials and meet others also in the same world.

Chris Gutteridge shows a crafting table in Creative mode
Chris Gutteridge shows a crafting table in Creative mode

Minecraft can be played in three main modes:

  • Survival mode is the traditional gaming mode and requires users to build whilst fighting off zombies, creepers and other monsters.
  • Creative mode allows users to build using unlimited resources without needing to mine.
  • Adventure mode leads the user through a particular quest or story.

At UCEM we are particularly interested in the Education edition of Minecraft and application of related environments and resources like the sustainability city map. We are keen to understand how easily Minecraft could be used for learning, teaching and assessment.

Chris took us on a tour of the different worlds that he has been involved in creating. Southampton in Minecraft was built for University of Southampton’s annual Science and Engineering festival using Open street map and lidar data (laser distance measurement data) and 3D data from DEFRA. The site is on a live server and contains all of Southampton along with genuine street signs, the idea being that it will help users learn navigation using a real world map. Using a PerlScript Chris has connected Southampton with location related Wikipedia pages. He has done the same with a Minecraft version of London and signs now indicate the location of death of famous people.

Boomtown festival in Minecraft
Boomtown festival in Minecraft

Chris’s Minecraft version of the Boomtown festival was built for fun and he used it to demonstrate to us  how adjusting the perspective can make the user experience more realistic – some of his creations can be viewed with 3D glasses. Other worlds Chris has worked on have more of a teaching and learning focus and he explained how he had built a Roman villa in Minecraft and then buried it, creating a ‘reverse Minecraft’ which allowed potential Archaeology students to learn about uncovering ancient buildings at a departmental family day. Chris has been involved in other outreach activities for the University of Southampton using Minecraft including the Meepcraft Minecraft cafe.

Minecraft Vetnor
Minecraft Vetnor

Minecraft Vetnor is the Minecraft version of Vetnor in the Isle of Wight, Chris’s home town, and was created for Vetnor fringe festival 2015. He created the project in survival mode and mined all of the stone and sand manually, at one point he had to remove a large mountain to carry on building.  Project Newport was created in 2017 as a half-term challenge for young people encouraging them to build their idea of the past, present or future of Newport.

A quick rainbow building built during the meeting
A quick rainbow building built during the meeting

During the meeting Chris showed us how we could create a replica of the UCEM Horizons building and the local Reading area in Minecraft using longitude and latitude data. Unfortunately the code wasn’t performing as expected and we ended up with buildings only 3 blocks high! Chris also demonstrated how it is possible to change colours (see the rainbow buildings above) and elevations during the creation process. While manual creation of sites can take a considerable amount of time building worlds using existing data allows for ‘economies of scale’ and some very quick returns.

A very quick Minecraft view of Horizons on Queen’s Road, Reading
A very quick Minecraft view of Horizons on Queen’s Road, Reading

The session ended with an overview of the server administration required for management of site and a more general discussion of the learning benefits of Minecraft.

To date the it seems the primary use of Minecraft in Higher Education has been as a space in which to hold open days and induction week activities during the pandemic.   While the controlled environments used in Minecraft Education can work well in lessons for younger children the lack of agency could sometimes cause frustration and isn’t necessarily conductive to more high-level learning. However asking students to go in and either navigate or correct building structure may have potential learning opportunities for our students.

The use of Minecraft is definitely something we’d like to investigate further. See this Wakelet for resources on Minecraft use in Higher Education.

One Reply to “Mining for learning in the built environment”

  1. Have you also looked at Cities: Skylines as a tool for learning in the built environment? I mention it because as well as Minecraft my 12 year old son spends a lot of time on it. It has really fired his interest in urban design.

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