Coed, independent, PK3-12th grade school in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Mission to Mars: Fifth Graders Colonize Mars through Minecraft

While brainstorming projects to engage her fifth grade math class, Mandy Howell discovered that other teachers were using Minecraft as a learning tool. Though unfamiliar with Minecraft herself, Mrs. Howell knew that many of her students were experts at the game, and thought the project could be an engaging way to teach geometry to fifth graders who were eagerly awaiting their summer vacations.

“In fifth grade math, the main geometry objective is calculating volume of regular and composite figures based on blocks, as well as reviewing calculating area and perimeter, and Minecraft is based on blocks. I knew our kids were really engaged in Minecraft, and making calculations about figures built in Minecraft would get them excited about the learning,” Mrs. Howell recalls.

Mrs. Howell also knew her students were studying Mars in science class. She approached fifth grade science teacher Selene Willis. With math and science back-to-back in the daily schedule, combining the two class periods allowed for extensive project time and for students to work in groups with people they did not normally have in their class. The two teachers decided to collaborate for a pilot project using MinecraftEdu software in which their students would create a 3D model of a Mars colony.

Before presenting the project to the students, the science curriculum frontloaded them with information. First, they learned the basics of astronomy and studied similarities and differences between Earth and Mars. Then, Chad Brown came to Shorecrest from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as a guest speaker. Mr. Brown discussed his team’s space travel mission planning efforts. This led to lots of research for a fifth grade debate on the question: Should humans plan to travel to and live on Mars? (The “yes” team won the debate.)

“We learned a lot of the science before [...] so students could answer questions like: What is Mars like? What are the constraints that we need to worry about if we actually go to Mars? Once they learned about the project, they were able to then transfer that knowledge,” Ms. Willis reported.

For the next part of the project, the grade researched what a colony might need to survive on Mars. Students were broken into small groups to represent scientists in charge of air quality, water, food production, transportation, communication, energy resources, housing and a medical team. Each group was tasked with designing a main pod and two supplementary pods for their sector that could withstand Mars’ environment.

Fifth grader Taylor R. was on the food production team and explained the need for three pods. “With food production, we had a garden which one person would work on, and storage which one person would do, and the animal pod one person would do.” Together, the three pods could support food production for the colony on Mars.

Each student planned their pod in 2D on graph paper, and then the grade met in a circle around a rug-sized grid sheet to plan which pod would go where. They discussed proximity of pods that needed to use each other’s resources, like putting water near food production to help plants grow, and also putting more frequently used pods in the center of the layout so they were easy for everyone to get to. Train tracks outlined the pods and a mansion for the scientists to live in was placed at the top of the map.

Ms. Willis was excited about the unexpected learning that came from everyone thinking of the common good to determine the layout of the colony. “They got to actually learn how to negotiate and talk about what’s more important than something else, and learn how to let go of what they wanted and think about what would be best for the Mars colony. That was a huge experience for them.”  Fifth grader Lillee B explained it well when she said, “we all practiced communicating with other scientists, with other people.” These types of collaborative skills prepare students for lifelong learning and real-life success.

Once the colony’s map was finalized, eager students finally got to build 3D models in Minecraft. They were given latitude and longitude coordinates of where the cornerstone of their building belonged and which directions to build, adding skills learned in geography to the project, and ensuring that the 2D layout was replicated correctly.

The final phase of the process for most project-based learning is reflection. In written reflections, students explained what materials they used for their building and why. They downloaded images of interior and exterior views of their pods to their iPads and added their mathematical calculations.

Deep and active learning applied in the project empowered students to establish themselves as experts both with the subject matter and with the software. A quick, online survey asked students how much experience they had with Minecraft and if they could thoughtfully teach others how to use it. Fifth grader Rose L was thankful for this. “At first I didn’t really know how to work Minecraft, but when we started the project my partners helped me with the controls.”

In the end, Mrs. Howell said students were “eager to work on it the whole time and to see the math through. Technology is always super engaging for the kids.”

Looking back, fifth grader Taylor R said she liked the math challenge best. “My favorite part was calculating the volume of the structures when we were finished. It was kind of really cool but it was a bit difficult.” While Lillee B enjoyed the engineering aspects, “My favorite part was definitely building the buildings. It was an amazing progression. It was really cool to see all of it come together.”

Next year, the cross-curricular project will expand to include the whole grade level, adding English class for work on their nonfiction writing, as well as creating a civilization in geography class.

Shorecrest Preparatory School

5101 First Street Northeast
St Petersburg, FL 33703
Phone: (727) 522-2111  |  Fax: (727) 527-4191

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