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Online learning: CBE students using Minecraft to design new public spaces

Calgary Board of Education students had the opportunity to level up their city this fall.

Students took part in the Level Up Calgary design challenge using Minecraft. 

Minecraft is a popular online game that lets players build structures using virtual blocks. Materials are mined, items are created and then blocks can be replaced as a part of the game.

Students will visit a virtual downtown core in the game. They’re able to create their own designs for a virtual public space.

“Our students will not only submit their virtual designs for consideration by a panel of experts at the City of Calgary, but the selected designs will become a physical reality in downtown Calgary,” said Joanne Pitman, superintendent of school improvement with the Calgary Board of Education.

All students in CBE schools had the opportunity to take part in the challenge. Individuals up to entire classrooms could participate depending on how schools decided to use Minecraft Education Edition in the classroom.

Every school had a facilitator for the challenge, said Mike Nelson, education director for the Calgary Board of Education.

“We have schools that are embracing this, and we think that almost the entire school will participate in the project,” said Nelson.

The City of Calgary hasn’t released a location where winners will have their designs turned into reality.

A screenshot from a video showed The Famous Five in the Calgary Board of Education’s Minecraft Education Edition Level Up Challenge. CALGARY BOARD OF EDUCATION AND MICROSOFT CANADA

Using Minecraft in the classroom not just for fun

Given how popular Minecraft is worldwide, using it in the classroom might be seen as a bit of a cheat code to get kids involved in learning.

“This opportunity is strengthened by so many of our students having actually used Minecraft,” said Nelson.

The high level of knowledge about how to play Minecraft also presented other opportunities in the classroom. Nelson acknowledged that while many teachers are keen and knowledgeable about the game, not all teachers have been.

“We’re going to also have teachers that come into this type of project, and maybe they’re a bit nervous, and the students are going to help guide them along this journey,” he said.

Level Up Calgary complemented the already existing curriculum for K-12. For younger students it had links to lessons on citizenship and engagement, culture and the environment. Minecraft could be used in the career and technology studies and science courses of older students.

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for our students to be creative, examining how they can impact their community and make real world real world connections within their learning,” said Pittman.

A screenshot from a video showed Mayor Naheed Nenshi in the Calgary Board of Education’s Minecraft Education Edition Level Up Challenge. CALGARY BOARD OF EDUCATION AND MICROSOFT CANADA

First use of its kind in Canada

The use of Minecraft in this way was a first for any Canadian school board.

Minecraft Education Edition has been used in 115 countries according to Elka Walsh, national learning and skills lead for Microsoft Canada. 

She said that what CBE is doing with the challenge is different from how other countries have used the game.

“What’s so unique about what CBE is doing here is really creating something very, very rooted in the community, and in giving the students an opportunity to develop more citizenship skills, and connection to their neighbours and each other, and a sense of belonging within their city,” she said.

Non-player characters have been placed throughout the virtual downtown core to teach students about Calgary. These include Mayor Naheed Nenshi at Calgary’s City Hall, the Famous Five at Olympic Plaza, and Calgary Public Library NPCs with their new blue vest design in front of the Central Library.

Details about turning the virtual into reality to come

The City said they are currently forming a panel to accept submissions. 

Jason Cameron, program lead for resilience strategy in resilience and infrastructure for the City of Calgary, said that many people from the City wanted to join that panel.

The City of Calgary hasn’t yet set aside a space where the winning designs will be turned into physical art.

“To be honest it’s a mythical block, we don’t have anything in mind yet,” he said.

“I think a lot of it will depend on the kind of designs that we’re seeing.”

Cameron said the City will work with downtown partners such as the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture and Planning, and the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) to find the best space to display the created art.

“We just don’t know what it’s going to look like yet because we don’t know what the designs are going to look like, and how to best incorporate them into our projects that are coming up in 2022,” he said.

Winning designs could be rendered as a mural or as a physical three-dimensional art piece.

A screenshot from a video showed the space students will be able to create designs in for Calgary Board of Education’s Minecraft Education Edition Level Up Challenge. CALGARY BOARD OF EDUCATION AND MICROSOFT CANADA