The seventh-graders at Maple School in Chicago had just started learning about the Cold War when a handful of boys sat down at the school's library computers to cement their understanding of the subject. They weren't scouring Wikipedia for historical information or reviewing old news footage on YouTube. They were building a model of divided Germany with the help of one of the world's hottest video games: Minecraft.
"It's really a great visual tool for presenting our knowledge, just like you would use something like PowerPoint to show off your research," said Arie Estrin, 12, who was assembling a nuclear submarine, block by digital block. "That's what we do with Minecraft. It's a good way to channel your thoughts into understanding how something might have actually looked or happened."
Many teachers are tapping Minecraft's creative power to educate students in everything from history to engineering to biology.
It's part of a movement that aims to motivate kids through familiar technology. Teachers are using games such as Assassin's Creed to illustrate the Revolutionary War and World of Warcraft to inspire creative writing exercises, but nothing has had the impact of Minecraft, which has 100 million registered users worldwide.
"It's virtual Legos," said Zack Gilbert, a sixth-grade teacher in Normal, Ill. "When parents are like, 'I don't know (about the merit of using video games in class),' I say, 'Did you play Legos as a kid?' "That's what this is, except it's virtual and there's more building and creating than you could ever do (in the real world)."
Minecraft was the brainchild of Markus Persson, a Swedish game designer enchanted by the relatively simple graphics and open-ended play of the games he had in his youth. Released in 2009, Minecraft lets users build almost anything they can imagine out of multicolored cubes.
The results are frequently stunning. YouTube is teeming with guided tours of highly detailed Minecraft worlds, ranging from New York City skyscrapers to the fantasy lands of Game of Thrones.
Northwestern University student Ben Rothman spent hundreds of hours rendering the school's campus on Minecraft two years ago, then ran his creation through a 3-D printer. The resulting model, 5 feet by 4 feet, was put on display at the university.
"The main driving force was that I noticed that I had been spending 20 hours a week playing video games," said Rothman, 22. "I figured, 'I'm going to do this anyway. Why don't I do something that will let me play but also get something out of it?' ''
That's a pretty good summation of the recipe that has helped Minecraft catch on at schools. Joel Levin, a former teacher who helped create a version of the game for educators, said his daughter picked up sophisticated math skills such as estimation and proportion merely by building a Minecraft house. "Minecraft is offering teachers a new type of learning experience, but the secret sauce is that kids are engaged," said Levin, whose company, TeacherGaming, has sold the MinecraftEdu version of the game to 2,500 schools. "They love it."
Some kids want to do it so much that they sign up for weekend or summer classes that use Minecraft as a teaching tool. Dana Stewart, who teaches a course for Northwestern's Center for Talent Development, has her students build ancient Egyptian structures with the game, a lesson that requires them to contemplate design issues and building materials.
"It's an experience you can't replicate any other way," Stewart said.
Jana Sebestik, who works at the University of Illinois' Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education, teaches contemporary lessons with the game. She had university students build a nuclear plant and windmill farm in a Minecraft world, then asked middle schoolers to construct houses that share the same virtual power grid.
The idea is to use a game that kids love to introduce them to real-world science and engineering problems and to kindle an interest in the subjects, which Sebestik hopes will last to high school and beyond. "Middle school is the place you can catch a kid and create enthusiasm," she said.