Monday, January 12, 2015

Roman Architecture in Minecraft

The caldarium in a Roman bath

Last year, as our school began its 1:1 BYOL program in the 7th grade, I had the opportunity to redesign our Latin IA course to incorporate technology within the Latin program. In doing so, I redeveloped our introductory level curriculum around thematic "modules" that are each split between core content work and a project devoted on some cultural component, e.g. Roman architecture and engineering (cf. the complete course breakdown). I've written a little about these projects, e.g. the Modulus I project on Roman geography here, and soon, hopefully, I'll have more to say about the overall project and its evolution this year.

A latrina from a Roman fort

We're currently finishing up Modulus IV, in which students were challenged to learn something about Roman architecture and engineering using some provided resources, including Yale's free MOOC on Roman architecture. Using this content knowledge, kids were then asked to build an authentic Roman structure of their own choosing, as determined by their interests. Ideally, their structure ties into both our Modulus II project, in which they developed an ancient persona using an infographic and our Modulus III project, in which they described how this persona would have interacted with people using modern social media. The Modulus IV project, to continue with this progression progression, asks students to consider how Romans interacted with physical space. In particular, we considered the following questions:
  • What were some of the most common Roman structures?
  • What did they look like and why?
  • How did the Romans build them?
  • How did Romans use them?
An elaborate Roman villa

A number of options were available for building the structure, including pen/paper, Build with Chrome, Sketchup, and Minecraft (but only for the kids who chose to use it). It's not my intention to privilege Minecraft to our other project platforms, and the projects done with the other tools were exceptional. But using Minecraft, i.e., a video game, posed the biggest challenge and risk, given that not everyone believes that a game can be used as an educational tool. Based on our accomplishments in just a week, I think we've proven them wrong: several other teachers commented on how much the kids were talking about the project all week, and the collective work done in our world has amazed everyone who's seen it.

Last year's Minecraft projects were fantastic, but because kids using it worked on their own in single-player mode, I wasn't able to oversee their work nor could I keep it together in some central place. This year, thanks in part to +Diane Main's session at edcampSFBay last August, I decided to use a server and ended up using Apex (paid), which allows up to 24 players to be logged into our world at any time (other options are available too). All in all, 21 students elected to build in Minecraft, and I've been able to watch them work together over the course of the week. While there is no "group" option within the project, with groups of kids working on a single structure, most kids have decided to build complementary structures in our makeshift town.

The finished product to this project (whether using Minecraft, Sketchup, etc.) is a screencast video that narrates students' engagement with the questions above, while also pointing out any salient architectural features or interesting points of engineering students want to share. The videos will be uploaded to YouTube to share with the each other and the rest of our Latin program.

A working aqueduct

We didn't use as much Latin in this project as I anticipated, but the quality of work done has been quite impressive and the cultural understanding that we gained provides a worthwhile offset. Kids who build structures by hand did a fantastic job recreating Roman homes and other public structures, and those who used Sketchup and Build with Chrome did amazing work modeling Roman temples and arenas. The Minecraft projects were exceptionally creative, especially with the Romecraft texture pack that turns Minecraft blocks and tools into their comparable ancient versions and allows us to build columns, mosaics, and other amazing things in a more authentic Roman style.

A Roman amphitheater

Working together in one place, our class built excellent examples of homes, baths, temples, a forum complete with shops, a working aqueduct, and even a latrine, along with a road connecting most of our structures (cf. some screenshots here). Most impressive, perhaps, was the way the kids helped each other, with the more experienced crafters lending their support to the noobs, giving them helpful advice and even landing a hand in construction. Through watching them work in it this year, I myself learned quite a lot about Minecraft and now appreciate more than ever how intricate and involved crafting is with it. In addition to architecture and engineering, it can be used to teach art, design, geometry, Boolean logic and circuit design, physics, and so much more.

Though I only asked for videos about a minute in length, the average video ran for 4min (cf. a great one below). I'm amazed how much effort our kids put into their work in such a short period of time, and it's truly remarkable what kids can accomplish when working together toward a common goal. If there were any doubts in my mind about independent project work of this sort, they've been summarily dismissed. Not only did our Latin students absorb a thorough amount of content that they were able to relate to ideas developed previous projects, but they had an opportunity to explore their own creativity and work together to build something they themselves deeply valued. Most of all, they had fun doing it, and I'm confident that a high percentage of our class found themselves in a flow state when working on their projects. We'll continue using Minecraft in our JCL club meetings, when our world will continue to evolve.

Educators interested in using Minecraft in their classes should have a look at the free Minecraft for Educators course offered online by the Canvas Network beginning later this month. Below, I'll list few things I learned that would have helped get the project off the ground a little more smoothly:

Setting up the server
  • If not using MinecraftEDU, a hosted server, e.g. on Apex, is advantageous, in that it runs 24-7 and doesn't depend on the power of your own computer. For a server allowing 10 simultaneous players, the cost is $4/month, and for 24 players, it's $7/month—a very worthy investment.
  • The Minecraft Wiki is hugely helpful in understanding how the game works, including learning how to use commands. There are also a number of amazing communities supporting Minecraft builders, like the G+ Minecraft in Education community, to name just one.
  • Before opening up the server to players, make it very clear that "griefing", i.e. giving other players a hard time by damaging their work, will not be tolerated in any way. Kids will put a heroic amount of time into their work, and so anything that prevents students from working or tampering with their work in any way cannot be allowed.
Game play and manipulation
  • It can be very helpful to learn how the coordinate system works in Minecraft, since, upon creation of a world, you can set aside a clearly defined area in which students are to work. From there, work can proceed radially outward. Otherwise, it may be difficult to track all of the work that will spread out over a surprisingly large area in the game.
  • As soon as they begin working, ask students to provide you with the coordinates for their particular workspace and keep them handy. You'll be easily able to teleport both yourself and others around using them.
  • OP yourself (i.e., make yourself an operator) and use some of the more helpful game rules to make it easier for everyone to build, e.g. "/gamerule doDaylightCycle false" for permanent daylight, "/gamerule doMobSpawning false" to keep harmful mobs away, "/gamerule keepInventory true" to ensure that death doesn't lead to lost items, etc. The command "/weather clear" is also very useful for keeping the rain away, etc.
  • When first starting, put players in creative mode and set the difficulty to "Peaceful" to allow players a chance to get comfortable with game play. Otherwise, some mobs may spawn that damage structures. Combat can follow as soon as players are ready.
  • The "tab" key can be used to autocomplete names of players currently on a server. For example, "/tp mo" + tab will automatically give "/tp mosspike" (assuming there are no other players with a name beginning with "mo").
  • The "@" selector can be used to select multiple players, which can be very iseful. @a, for example, selects all players, @p selects the closest player, @r selects a random player, and @e selects all entities. Therefore, the command "/gamemode 1 @a" puts all players in creative mode.
  • The "adventure" game mode can be useful for taking screenshots and watching others work. In addition to being invisible, you can't interact with blocks (i.e., you can't break stuff!).
  • For those who don't have the $27 game, I highly recommend sharing Minecraft work through a screencast. On Macs, this is easily done using Apple's native Quicktime. With PCs, there are a number of free tools like Jing that easily record screens.
  • Ensure that the computer volume in Minecraft is low enough that it doesn't interfere with the tour narration.
  • It can also be helpful to turn the chat off while screencasting, which can easily be done in "Settings".
Since I'm still a noob myself, I'd welcome comments and suggestions to continue the conversation, and I'd love to see what others are doing with Minecraft in their classrooms.