Like many nine-year-olds, Stanley Strum spends a lot of time building things in Minecraft, the immersive game that lets your create your own mini-universe. The game has many tools. But Stanley is one of many players taking the game a step further by building entirely new features into the game. And, more than that, he’s also learning how to code.
He’s doing this with a tweak to the Minecraft game, called LearnToMod. Modifications like this, called “mods,” are a big part of the game’s runaway success. But this particular mod helps kids learn to create their own mods. For example, Strum built a teleporter that whisks him to a random location within the game world. Another lesson teaches kids to write the code to create a special bow that shoots arrows that become “portals” between different locations in the game, allowing them to reach spaces that would otherwise be quite difficult to access. It’s like being able to create your own cheat codes.
Strum is one of 150 students who are now tinkering with LearnToMod, an educational add-on teaches you the basics of programming while creating tricks and tools that you can use within the Minecraft. The mod will be available to the general public in October, and its creators hope it will help turn Minecraft into a kind of gateway drug for computer programming.
“Kids are already spending ridiculous amounts of hours on Minecraft,” says Stephen Foster, the co-founder of ThoughtSTEM, the company that’s built the LearnToMod module. “So we thought this would be a good way to help them learn skills.”
‘Kids are already spending ridiculous amounts of hours on Minecraft. We thought this would be a good way to help them learn skills.’
ThoughtSTEM started out offering in-person classes in San Diego, Granite Bay, and Oakhurst, CA based on a game called CodeSpells that Foster co-created as a PhD student at the University California. The idea was to hook students on CodeSpells so that they’d be motivated to learn the programming skills they needed to advance within the game. But Foster and his co-founders Sarah Esper and Lindsey Handley soon noticed that many of their students were already avid Minecraft players, and it would make more sense to create a class that would harness the passion their students already had for Minecraft. So they launched a class for kids between the age of eight and 15 that teaches kids to code their own modifications to Minecraft — and even earn college credit at the University of California in San Diego while doing it.
Inspired by the success of students like Strum, the ThoughtSTEM team is now bringing the tools they developed for their own classes to the rest of the world through the LearnToMod. And, for an additional fee, the company will also offer an online course that, just like its in-person counterpart, will enable students to earn college credit at UC San Diego.
Stepping Outside of the Virtual Classroom
ThoughtSTEM is far from the first company to use Minecraft for educational purposes. For example, a company called TeacherGaming sells a version of the game called MinecraftEDU that is custom built to help educators create virtual classrooms that can be used to teach everything from history to microbiology. Google even worked with the MinecraftEDU to create an addon to teach the principles of quantum computing.
But LearnToMod is a little different from most other Minecraft-based educational programs. Instead of using the game as a virtual classroom, ThoughtSTEM built its own interface that exists outside of Minecraft. But the coding skills kids learn through the web application actually help them game special advantages in the game.
Minecraft Tetris. Screenshot: LearnToMod
Minecraft is incredibly open-ended. It’s entirely up you whether you as a player whether spend your time building elaborate castles, fighting monsters, or exploring the the game world. What’s more, using mods, you can quickly create things that would otherwise take a long time to build in the game, such as mountains or massive dungeons, or create custom types of blocks. You can also create special rules that enable you to do things like build your own games within Minecraft, such as capture the flag or Tetris.
Once the kids have crafted their code in LearnToMod, the application connects to their Minecraft account to make the mods available to the kids in the game. By teaching kids to build their own Minecraft mods, the ThoughSTEM team is hoping to keep students motivated to learn some of the trickier parts of coding.
TeacherGaming founder Joel Levin is fond of the idea. “Kids are passionate about the game and they quickly understand that they can extend and enhance their Minecraft experience by learning some basic programming,” he says. “And that’s really what we want, isn’t it? To have kids realize that with code, they can improve their life in a way that’s relevant to them.”
That’s really what we want, isn’t it? To have kids realize that with code, they can improve their life in a way that’s relevant to them.
In fact, Levin says TeacherGaming is working on its own mod building education program called ComputerCraftEdu, which will eventually be offered both online and in-person. And there are already a few other classes that teach students to create mods, such as MakersFactory’s class in Santa Cruz and YouthDigital’s online class. But most of these other classes require students to write code in a programming language called Java. And Java can be cumbersome.
Of course, building Minecraft mods students learn won’t turn them into Mark Zuckerberg over night. The skills they develop will transfer to other types of programming, such as mobile app development, but that will require quite a bit of additional work. But it’s the first step towards realizing that programming is something that’s within their grasp.