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Minecraft used to sharpen math skills
Trent Drenkard works on Minecraft during an elective class at Otwell Middle School. The course uses the game to help students with math literacy. - photo by Jennifer Sami

With Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” playing in the background, Oleksandr Senko was clicking away on Minecraft, breaking and building blocks and taking screen grabs of his progress.

It wasn’t a day off for the Otwell Middle School sixth-grader, rather another day in his math literature class.

“It’s pretty fun,” he said. “We get to build stuff ... people learn more by doing stuff.”

The nine-week connections, or elective, class is new to Otwell. Teacher Mitch Brotherton said he spent part of last year as a Title I math teacher incorporating some of the elements, but stopped short of using Minecraft as a teaching tool.

The game is all about breaking and placing blocks to create structures, inventions and protecting them against bad guys. But Brotherton uses a modified version of the popular video game called MinecraftEdu.

“It’s not like they’re missing out on math class,” Brotherton said. “It’s really an additional class that we use to teach.

“We do research skills, presentation skills, collaboration skills and getting some of the fundamentals that they don’t get and that I wouldn’t be able to teach if it were just an academic class.”

From his classes last year, Brotherton said “the level of engagement has multiplied tenfold.”

Brotherton said the game accounts for about half the curriculum for the sixth- and seventh-grade course. While it’s a game, it’s also focused on math, encouraging students to have fun and build while learning through three or four projects. Each one focuses on researching, writing, working and presenting.

The first project this year was a graphing unit. The game helped the students get a better visual than just charting on a piece of paper. And because it’s interactive, they can see what their classmates are doing and ask each other questions.

“They might not be good at math and they might not care about it at all, but they do it in this class,” Brotherton said. “After the initial shock wears off that you get to use Minecraft in school, it goes over well.”

As with most connections classes, students didn’t get to sign up for Brotherton’s class. But when she found out she was randomly selected for math literacy, Grace Noble said “both me and my dad were really excited.”

“I thought it was going to be really fun,” she said. “You get to interact with your classmates.”

Ripley Kurtz knew about Minecraft before taking the class, but “I’ve never played on the computer. It’s a really fun class.”