When Indianapolis schools closed due to the coronavirus, Gregg Nowling’s engineering and design students were in the middle of building projects using foam core, hot glue guns, and X-Acto knives.
With only a few days notice, Nowling had to find a way to teach some of the same concepts remotely to his students at the downtown campus of Purdue Polytechnic High School, a charter school with a focus on project-based learning and backing from the well-funded school reform group XQ. (XQ is a project of the Emerson Collective, which is a funder of Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)
He shifted to using SimCity, a computer game where players design and grow their own metropolises. That soon sparked an idea from one of his students: Maybe they should build a community in Minecraft?
A game that’s been embraced by educators globally, Minecraft is flexible to adaptation, and it allows students to build with digital blocks and learn coding skills. Nowling soon paired up with Andy Mundell, an engineering, design, and physics teacher at Purdue Polytechnic, to see how they could give students the tools to build in Minecraft from their homes.
“So much of online learning is staring at a screen,” said Mundell, who has taught for 12 years and also mentors the robotics team. Minecraft is still on a screen, he acknowledged, but students must set up their computers and code. “We really didn’t want to give up hands-on learning.”
Eventually, Nowling and Mundell settled on a version of Minecraft that would work that runs on Raspberry Pi computers, which are popular among hobbyists. They are about the size of a 1-inch-thick credit card and cost the school less than $100 each, Mundell said. Students hooked them up to televisions and monitors provided by the school. Then, students use the coding language Python to build in the Minecraft world.
“I’m a 47-year-old man who doesn’t play video games, so I had to learn all of this,” said Nowling, who has taught for over a decade. “It’s been exciting for me to see that it was really in fact kids that came up with class.”
We spoke with Nowling and Mundell about the Minecraft project, what it’s been like to adapt to remote project-based learning, and ways they are finding joy while home-schooling their own children.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What has been your favorite lesson to teach remotely and what about it works well?
Mundell: For me, it’s definitely the thing that me and Gregg are doing. It’s a Raspberry Pi with a simplified version of Minecraft on it. And we’re learning and teaching Python coding to the students, letting them interact with that world in ways that wouldn’t be possible without coding.
It just works so well because it brings those things together. And it does it within an environment that the students are already excited for — because maybe they played Minecraft. But maybe they don’t actually know as much as they think they do because they maybe have never coded in Python or they’ve never used a Raspberry Pi. It’s kind of a nice little space between their comfort and their interest and pushing them outside of that zone as well.
Nowling: This class is amazing — to get to see the artistic ability that these kids have, the ability to build. At the end of this class, Andy is designing this world, and each kid will have a block of space where they can put their building. They have to orient their houses, or whatever they’re building, so that they all face the inside of the street. They’ll get to pick who their neighbor is and how those houses connect and what their yards look like. And at the end of all this, they’re going to send us their code, and you will be able to walk around and go from house to house to house or building to building to building in a virtual way.
What are your students learning from the Raspberry Pi project and have they surprised you in how they use the devices or approach their work?
Mundell: One of the main things that I’m looking for — and I’m kind of focusing a little bit on the coding side of this — is logical thinking, writing code, and how you organize it and plan it to accomplish what you want. And so I’ve already been very impressed with what students have done. I created some little tutorials about Python code. And I gave them a basic assignment that said, write code that simulates a magic eightball.
Many of them did the response in a way that I didn’t expect but I could tell that either they had a little bit of coding knowledge in the past or they had gone and explored how to make these things more efficient.
Nowling: For me, I’m looking at creativity and how complex their designs are. What materials are they using, and what are the design elements? From the get-go, I’ve been absolutely blown away with what these kids are coming up with. One of the first projects we had to do was to build a house in Minecraft and one of the kids built a castle along with a Trojan horse. Another kid built a lakefront cottage. It’s just amazing to me the things that they know how to do, but also just the depth of quality that some of them are really putting in. That’s the thing that has impressed me the absolute most — just seeing the artistic side of them coming out.
What misconceptions did you have about online learning when schools first shuttered due to the coronavirus?
Nowling: All in all, it’s been a really seamless thing. The negatives are what the negatives are. You don’t get to see your kids in person. You don’t get to hold them as accountable. But from an educator standpoint, I think in some ways we’re doing some exceptionally remarkable stuff. Even before the coronavirus, all of the academic classes, like math and science and English, had already been taught online at Purdue Polytechnic. So for us, a lot of this is just business as usual. Except that we’re teaching these passion projects online.
Mundell: I think the misconception is that you’re just gonna continue your classroom as it was. Because you absolutely can’t. You have to have different ways of connecting with the students. You even have to have some different expectations for what they can learn or what activities are worthwhile in this environment.
We do have some students whose lives are chaotic. Especially right now. If our goal is to go through the algebra standards and hit all of them, we’re just gonna make this miserable for everybody. But what can we do to keep learning fun, to keep learning meaningful, and to keep that school community? I think the goals we have right now have to be a little bit different.
What advice would you give parents who are being asked to help teach their children at home while school buildings are shuttered?
Mundell: The first advice is, the teachers are still there, so still email, still call. Another thing I’d say is, try to enjoy it. I’ve got a kindergartner and it’s kind of fun to go through some of those kindergarten lessons that I don’t ordinarily do and to connect. Being a teacher, I’m trying to instill how valuable education is and how fun it is to learn.
Nowling: I think being positive is 98% of it. If you, as a parent, are knocking what your kid’s being expected to do or what they’re trying to learn, then they’re just not going to take it seriously. I have a sophomore in high school — he’s a student at our school. I have to be on top of him to make sure that he gives me the amount of time that I feel like he should put in during the course of the week. The other cool thing is that I get to watch what my son is doing in his other classes. One of our teachers was doing a baking thing, and I got to watch him bake bread or muffins or something like that. So in some ways, it’s a super cool time to be a part of my kid’s education.