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Minecraft design challenge returns to Calgary and area schools

It’s time for Calgary’s students Level Up for a second year in a row, as the city’s Minecraft design challenge returns to inspire and educate students about civic life.

Minecraft is one of the world’s most popular games, especially with pre-teens and teens, which allows them to build virtual structures using blocks.

New this year is an expanded Minecraft rendition of the downtown, with locations in Chinatown and the East Village added to the lineup of places where students will have a chance to build their own ideas for Calgary.

“For CBE, this is all about connection—connection for students to the city, and connection for our system to the city,” said Joanne Pitman, Superintendent of School Improvement for the Calgary Board of Education.

“What we’re really seeing is real life experience in a virtual world, and that just expands our connection across every school and across the city as a whole.”

Students from all grade levels, including kindergarten, are being challenged to select a build site at Sien Lok Park in Chinatown, Fort Calgary in the East Village, an underground Green Line LRT station at Eau Claire, or the Calgary Public Library’s Central Library.

There, they will get the opportunity to interact with virtualized versions of civic leaders like Mayor Jyoti Gondek—up to 20 non-player characters this year from five last year—and get to create design solutions to improve civic life.

Grade 5 student Kareem at Griffith Woods School said that he wasn’t sure which plot he planned on picking, but was leaning towards Sien Lok Park.

“For Sien Lok Park, I think it’s unique when I can make like structures of that culture,” he said.

“It’s cool that Minecraft Education has much better features than Minecraft, like having these NPCs that look exactly like real people and say what you want to say.”

Returning again this year is the opportunity for selected Minecraft designs to be turned into real-world objects. Last year, a Grade 4 student winner from Captain John Palliser School had her designs turned into real benches by the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape.

Fun, educational, and something kids are already doing outside of the classroom

Pitman said that using Minecraft as an educational tool in the classroom validates the work of students, and the work they do inside and outside of school to further their education.

“I’ve had some parents actually reach out directly to share ‘oh my gosh, my weekend has been taken up by gaming with my child.’ It’s not seen as a negative, but actually seen as critical thinking and the experience is completely different,” she said.

“It is directly connected to curriculum, and what we do in the classroom is real, it matters. It’s important to a child’s development, and whether we’re talking kindergarten all the way through to our grade 12 students, this is directly linked to their achievement.”

Christopher Blais, a specialist on the teaching and learning team at the Calgary Board of Education, said that including Minecraft in the classroom connects students to something they’re already playing, but in an educational way.

It also gives teachers an opportunity to take a risk in their own practice of teaching, he said. They’re taking on something they might not be familiar with, but with the full support of the board’s technology staff to connect them with students in new ways.

“We have assured teachers that we’ve got your back and we’ve encouraged them to take that risk. This is a 21st-Century learning opportunity, and whether they are familiar with it or not, you bet their students are,” Blais said.

All of the materials that will be taught through the design challenge are directly connected to the Alberta curriculum.

“We’ve had a curriculum rewrite, and we’ve been working closely with those specialists to ensure that we have a direct linkage to the Alberta program of studies embedded within the [Minecraft] world,” Blais said.

Students that want to work on their projects outside of classroom hours, Blais said that students across all of the boards, including those who choose to participate independently, can do so by using their school credentials to log into Minecraft Education Edition.

A screen shot of the Minecraft Education Edition rendition of Downtown Calgary. CITY OF CALGARY

Evolution from Canadian first last year

The use of Level Up in CBE classrooms in 2022 was a Canadian first and was unique from other uses of Minecraft Education Edition in that its focus was entirely rooted in community building.

Blais said that it has been exciting for him to see this transition from a one-off project into something that is more enduring within CBE. And now, within CCSD and RSD.

“The student and teacher input and engagement has been just extraordinary, and I’m just so excited to see what happens here in season two,” he said.

Jason Cameron, economic resilience coordinator for the City of Calgary, said that the partnership with the city has expanded this year, as have the opportunities for students to bring their projects in front of panels of city decision-makers. Those panels will be judging the projects and awarding 64 finalists across the various categories and school divisions.

“Hopefully we’ll have some city planners and some council representation on some of them, and then we’ll have community leaders that have provided the input into the game this year,” Cameron said.

“Last year it was a blank slate. And I think this year we’ve matured and we’ve helped frame those learning opportunities with those site projects to really advance the curriculum, but also to advance young people’s participation in something meaningful in the downtown.”

The end goal, he said, is to excite young people about being engaged in civic life.

“Hopefully it’ll encourage them to find other ways to provide input, and to do whether it’s joining their local service club, to volunteering, to the Mayor’s Youth Council,” Cameron said.

“I think there’s a real drive to make young people feel welcomed and a part of our city and it’s a priority for our council. It’s a priority for our administration, and this is a chance to really plant those seeds.”