24 July 2018

Dr Laura Hobbs and her colleagues, from Lancaster University’s Science Hunters outreach project, spent three days helping 400 children explore the science of tiny invertebrates and erupting volcanoes using the computer game Minecraft.

At Science Hunters, we spend a substantial amount of time immersed in the virtual world of Minecraft. It’s a bit like Lego, but on a computer, and with even more possibilities. Players get a wide range of cubed blocks of different textures and properties to build with, and there are lots of processes that mimic those in the real world.

Minecraft is also very popular with children, and these two factors are the basis of our use of the game to get children engaged with and enthused about science. We give them a brief, interactive introduction to a topic, then set them a related building task in Minecraft. There’s no right or wrong, it’s up to them to design a creative solution and the results can be both varied and impressive.

Lancashire Science Festival takes place at the end of June every year, and we’ve just been there taking our construction challenges to hundreds of children. The festival set up gives us two days with school groups, and a public day for children to attend with their families. Despite soaring temperatures, we put on 16 sessions across these three days, with children learning about minibeasts and volcanoes, and creating some excellent builds.

Lancashire Science Festival 2018

On Thursday, children from schools across Lancashire explored the tiny world of minibeasts, learnt about why these invertebrates are important for the environment, and then designed and built their own miniature creatures in Minecraft. These ranged from ladybirds to spiders to worms, and are recognisable even in cubic form.

On Friday and Saturday, children from more schools, and those taking part with their families, got involved with hypothetical volcanic hazard management, learning about what those hazards might be and how they might be dealt with. They then created and erupted their own volcanoes in Minecraft, exploring how they could protect a house from rapidly advancing lava. Approaches included constructing barriers, putting in moats or trenches, and building shelters around houses.

We, and the children we worked with, were very happy with our sessions. We checked with about 100 children to see what they’d learnt and had very positive results. We also got lots of smiley faces on our feedback cards and were asked several times if they could stay with us for the whole day (unfortunately not as all of our workshops were fully booked). As we aim to help children learn something about science while having fun, that’s exactly what we wanted!

Science Hunters

Science Hunters was set up by Dr Carly Stevens from the Lancaster Environment Centre in 2014 and the sessions at Lancashire Science Festival 2018 were led by Dr Jackie Hartley, Dr Mark Ashby and me, with excellent assistance from Dr Ben Jackson, Tom Burke and Magda Lapinska. We base our topics around expertise in the Lancaster Environment Centre and links we can make to the school curriculum; as well as volcanoes and minibeasts, we cover subjects such as food security, plant ecology, parasites and many more.

We visit schools, run a regular on-campus Minecraft Club for local children with autism and contribute activities to large public events such as Lancashire Science Festival. We focus on Widening Participation, aiming to reach children who may experience barriers to accessing educational opportunities. To find out more, please see our website www.lancaster.ac.uk/sciencehunters, follow us on Facebook and Twitter or email us at sciencehunters@lancaster.ac.uk.


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