Students learn math while having fun playing video game

Add this to the list of phrases you don’t expect to hear during a middle-school math lesson:

“You’re heading in the right direction: Just stay above water and head toward the sun!”

But this isn’t your everyday math lesson, and Dave Maneth isn’t a textbook teacher.

The Mayberry Middle School technology instructor sponsors the Mayberry Miners, a group of students who meet after school once a week to play Minecraft, a popular video game in which players build houses, farms, villages or whole societies out of virtual cubes in a computerized world.

Maneth formed the club this year because he and many of his students love Minecraft, and he thought it might be a great vehicle for teaching math concepts, problem-solving, teamwork and critical thinking.

“How else would you get kids to come in voluntarily and practice math?” Maneth said, smiling.

“Unlike a lot of the other stuff out there that’s all ‘bang-bang-bang-bang, zombie-zombie-zombie,’ ” he said, “this is a creative game, where you basically get to just build with your imagination.”

When he proposed the group earlier this school year, Maneth expected about 20 students to sign up.

He got more than 60 – so many that he had to split them into groups by grade level and free up a few additional afternoons on his schedule. One recent afternoon, about two dozen seventh- and eighth-graders met in his room after school, each one seated in front of a computer.

“This is your first challenge,” Maneth told the students. “You’re going to create a house for the five members in your group.

“I have created a random world, and there are spots for six villages. When you finish your first question, I’ll release you into the world, and you’re going to spawn into some trees. From there, you’ll see some giant Roman numerals marking each village.

“Claim your village – first-come, first-served – and start building your house. … Oh, and by the way, I have the monsters turned off.”

Within each virtual village, Maneth had placed a chest filled with basic virtual supplies, including an ax, enough bricks for the floor of a house and some glass blocks for windows. Working side-by-side at computer stations and in the virtual Minecraft world, the students would have to work together to chop trees, harvest ore, gather sheep, plant seeds and build their communities.

“Today’s topic is area,” Maneth told the students. “That’s right, it’s math. Aaaaaargh. There’s a reason for this.”

The students groaned but gleefully fetched graph paper from the front of the room, then broke into small groups to sketch floor plans and calculate the number of blocks they’d need to build beds, chairs, furnaces and kitchen tables.

“I like the fact that you can pretty much do anything you want in the game and build what you want,” said Reuben Taylor, an eighth-grader.

One of his teammates, the aptly named Elsa Carpenter, is something of a Minecraft wizard, having built countless worlds and figured out ways to turn cows and bamboo into leather and paper. She recently used Minecraft to create a science project on the properties of matter.

“We’re just gathering stuff,” she said, eyes glued to her computer screen. As her thumb tapped the space bar, her Minecraft character swung an ax to chop down trees, gathering wood to help build her team’s house.

Beside her, Reuben clicked a few buttons and magically turned slabs of wood and bundles of wool into twin beds with red coverlets and white pillows in one corner of the team’s new house.

“We need to plant some pumpkins,” he said.

Why pumpkins?

“Because pumpkins are cool.”

Minecraft, which can be played on personal computers, mobile devices, console and hand-held game systems, is one of the most popular video games on the market. Its pixelated world, primitive by modern standards, follows no storyline. Instead, it requires gamers to mine blocks to build structures – a sort of digital version of Legos.

In “creative mode,” Minecraft players can use blocks to recreate elaborate structures, such as the Empire State Building or the Taj Mahal. In “survival mode,” they can use buildings and other objects to create protection from monsters.

Maneth, whose college-age daughter introduced him to the game, can’t explain Minecraft’s appeal. Like his students, he just thinks it’s fun and addictive.

In his spare time, he is working on a Minecraft version of Mayberry Middle School, which he hopes to unveil by Choices Fair, an annual event where Wichita families can learn more about the district’s magnet programs. Mayberry, at 207 S. Sheridan in west Wichita, is a cultural and fine arts magnet.

“As the kid walks down the hallway (in Minecraft), he’ll walk into my classroom and see pictures of kids working on technology,” Maneth said. “If you go in the auditorium, you’ll see students doing plays and musicals.”

In the meantime, Maneth expects the Minecraft Miners to keep building and learning.

“This is a legitimate way of teaching kids,” he said. “It’s something they enjoy. It’s fun, and they don’t even realize, ‘Oh yeah, I guess I’m learning something, too.’ ”