Aurora 56z: A New Frontier for the Next Frontier of Learning

Over the term we ran a scientific Rich Learning Project, Aurora 56z with 130 grade ⅚ students. It was a massive project, which began with the scenario that climate change has ravaged the Earth and is now no longer a viable place to live. Students were explained the problem as a whole level by the class teachers who took on the dramatic role of “scientists.” It was presented to the students in a way that this was the “truth” and not simply a school project! It was from this moment that I think the students really engaged in the theatre of this project; whilst deep down they knew it was a Rich Learning Project and that the world was not actually ending, they were able to get into character as a member of the Planetary Council and took their role extremely seriously.

Students began the project by researching climate change and trying to decipher the mistakes humans had made which had lead to this destruction. They examined issues of fossil fuels, polar ice melting, extinction, food shortage and the effect of temperature increases. After this initial research students then began exploring the solar system for a viable planet to move to. This was an critical first step in the project as it forced students to examine questions, such as “what do humans need to survive?” and “what does Earth have that is different to the other planets?” It allowed us to meet some of the more content specific VELS points we are required to address at Level 4. I also saw some really interesting examples of creative thinking during this phase, students were beginning to develop logical plans to overcome the difficulties of living on other planets, for example designing oxygen generators and harnessing light and reflecting it on to different planets.

As a team we toyed with the idea of selecting one of the current planets as the “new home,” but felt that we would not be able to truly replicate the conditions of that planet in the minecraft arena. Thus Aurora56z was born and the scientists rushed to tell the planetary council of this new discovery. The students were then given two weeks to design a mode of transport to travel to Aurora56z and collate a list of things they would need to take with them.

Students researched various spacecraft designs and then used google sketchup to create their shuttles. They were required to workout the associated mathematical calculations and provide a justification of the specific elements of their design. Students were required to post this information on the wikispace Aurora56z.

In this phase it became apparent that the students required some form of management system. One student suggested that the level be split into different districts to avoid doubling up on supplies and with the aim of giving people more of a focus. This seemed like a great idea and initially four districts were created, Agriculture, Industry, City and Culture and Recreation. Students were given the choice about which district they belonged to and were able to move districts throughout the project if they felt they had more to contribute somewhere else. Another student suggested that there needed to be a fifth district, as she didn’t feel the needs of education were been covered. She created the District of Education & Discovery and enticed other students to move into her district.

This wikispace became the central hub of the project. Our main reasons for creating the wikispace were to provide an online space for individual reflection and to facilitate communication between districts. Because students were working across classes we wanted them to have a place where they could share ideas, learn from their peers and see what others were doing. Through a series of links students were able to access support information and then create their own sub-page coming from their district page. Wikispaces was the platform that we used for this project, however there are many similar programs available that would have achieved a comparable result. If anything, I felt a message board or chat feature would have supported greater communication between students.

After students had completed their shuttle designs and packing lists, we held an official rocket launch, using a model rocket and now we were officially living on planet Aurora56z. Whilst being merely symbolic this launch supported the dramatic side of this project and our desire to create an atmosphere of realism.

This project had so many roads that could have been taken; it was impossible, and would have been negligent for us not to cover issues relating to Civics and Citizenship. Issues of politics, democracy and laws needed to be discussed and debated, and the students naturally diverted down this road. However we (the teachers) really wanted to ensure that the overarching focus was scientific based around the notion of sustainability. To ensure we were steering onto this track, once we had landed on Aurora56z each District was given a responsibility/problem to tackle. These ranged from implementing sustainable energy sources and farming practises, to water desalination, to quarantine centres and to waste collection and disposable. This was the prime focus of the each district but did not limit what the students created on Aurora56z.

Students took their district responsibilities seriously and created logical and researched solutions to their problems. It was very interesting to see what things they created and valued as important to life. The only problem was that it was hard to get some students to think of “new” solutions to their problems. Many of them wanted to replicate how we did things on Earth and didn’t question whether these practises could be done better and when they would cause more problems for the citizens of Aurora.

The conception of Aurora56z was such a fascinating process to watch unfold. The students were so excited to be building their new world and the classroom was a buzz of excitement whenever we were working on the server. The amount of communication that occurred in the classroom during this time was phenomenal. Students were busy telling each other what they were doing and debating what needed to be done next. Others were offering words of advice, others asking for help and there were many shrieks of excitement when things worked or cries of pain when things didn’t! I was impressed with the attitude of all the students towards Minecraft. Of all the games we have used in an educational context, it was by far the best received by both male and female students and for such a sustained period of time. Half of the students had not played the game before and whilst some were initially reluctant, once in the game, they were converted. I like how the game has no defined rules, no end point and gives players creative freedom to build and design to their hearts content.

One of my favourite things that was built on the server was by some students in the Education & Discovery District. Their district’s role was to educate the people of Aurora on better life practises and also to further discover the planet Aurora and it’s surroundings. These students created a hidden underground city and when describing why they had built this, they explained that they were hoping that when the citizens of Aurora discovered this city, it would make them question whether or not they were the original inhabitants of Aurora and promote further investigation into this idea.

My colleague Kynan Robinson created the Minecraft server and was vital in not only overseeing the logistics of running and maintaining a server, supporting all five class teachers to understand the project and the desired outcomes but also in working with a group of ten students who were highly knowledgeable in the game. He facilitated lunchtime discussions with these students who became an “expert advisory group” for the teachers and students. This group was fantastic in helping us understand the intricacies of the game, the best management strategies of running such a complex system and were able to alert us to any problems that happened on the server. They were also all given the responsibility of being “Ops”. An “Op” has greater control on the server, and can do things such as issue warnings, block and ban others and can teleport people around the server. The Ops were constantly being called on by their peers to assist them whilst playing the game and they had to teach all the Noobs how to do many things. This experience was a fantastic opportunity for these students to develop their social skills, particularly leadership and communication skills and was essential for ensuring student directed learning.

Griefing can be an issue when playing in the online multiplayer world. Unfortunately there were some examples of it occurring on our server, though probably less than I may have initially expected. For the affected students it was a frustrating experience; some had put hours and hours of work into creating something and then within seconds it has been changed or destroyed. Initially there was a lot of accidental “griefing” happening, however this was more due to novice player mistakes than any malicious aforethought. I do think there were times when a lack of communication was the major problem; for example people thought they were collaborating with someone else and the other person didn’t know that was what was happening. On the upside this provided some valuable teaching moments and students were encouraged to go into another classroom and talk out their issues face to face with the other person.

Problems also occurred when people chose a place for their building and didn’t quite anticipate how big it was and then someone built next door to them and they felt that their “space” had been violated. The battle for “space” was a continual issue on Aurora 56z (despite the minecraft world being infinite). People tried building fences around their land or labelling their space with their district sign (most commonly a letter representing their district) however this was not always successful. I guess these issues will always occur when operating in a complex system and does mimic the real world which allowed for interesting parallels to be drawn and many interesting philosophical debates to be had.

The project concluded with Aurora56z being presenting to a panel of experts. The purpose of this panel was to allow students an authentic audience to justify their decision making and evaluate the success of the planet and the potential for it’s long-term survival. Approximately twenty-five students were charged with the task of collating all the work of their districts and then presenting it at the forum. This was an additional challenge for these students and allowed them to be further extended in the project. They had to interview members of their district and understand all of the different projects people had been working on. They created a screen-cast showcasing their districts response to their problems and had to ensure they spoke on behalf of their whole district. When the panel posed questions any of the students were able to answer or provide additional information.

It has been a epic project and I’m sure I haven’t quite covered everything in this first draft, however the one thing I do know is that Aurora56z sure looks like a very interesting place to live.

Check out this game…

Today one of our students introduced us to the game called Atmosphir. It is fantastic. It is a virtual world which students can move around and can then build their own world and can design challenges to set for others. People can compete to move through the world to collect objects, find the flag and beat their times. The game provides the building blocks and the students simply build their 3D world! Very easy for students to use. You can then upload your game to the Atmosphir community and others can play it. Definitely worth checking out. It is free and students just need to create their own log in on the web. Very excited about the possibilities of using this game as part of our unit.

This was a game made by one of the students in our gaming unit. It is pretty cool! Do you recognise the structure? He made it using a program called Sploder.

To design or not to design?

We have just finished another session now with the students; in this session we had a “game maker” come in and present to the class. I think this was a really worthwhile session as the students enjoyed hearing about the real life world of the game making.

He also had a really interesting perspective on the process we were undertaking – I guess we had gone down the path of getting the kids familiar with the programs before we started any serious game making and allowing them to explore the programs and discover things for themselves – we are definitely trying to focus on creating that community of knowledge and sharing. He had the belief that we should do all the designing/planning before we even touched the game making programs. I can see the merit in this idea as I can see how program could stifle their imaginations and force them down a particular path. I guess it makes sense to design first rather than be limited by what is possible with the program or their own abilities to use the program. He also stressed the importance of team work and the power of collaboration in the work place.

I am interested in the idea of taking the children on the design journey and I can see some great thinking coming out of this side of the project. As Paul explained he considered 99% of the work went into the design phase and 1% went into the actual game making. I could now see us spending the next few weeks in this “design phase.” I could see the class working on a design brief for their game. By the way: Does anyone have one of these?

I think it would be cool to spend time making characters/settings and producing some high quality work either through drawing/clay/computer programs and really getting the students to write a narrative  for their game and then story board the levels and quest of the characters. And other things such as creating sound effects and designing pick ups, Enemies,  Easter eggs etc.

My only concern is whether or not the students will be able to replicate these ideas using the computer programs after the design phase. Will their skills be sufficient? And if not, does this matter? Is the fact that they have produced high level thinking in the design phase enough? Can they then go back to create simple games? Are we setting them up for a fall? Or should we simply allow the students to experiment with the programs and create games “on the go” without the forward planning? What are your thoughts?

Students Create their Own Rubric

Today we had our next session in our PBL gaming journey. We asked the students to design their own rubric based around “what makes a great/enjoyable/successful game?” I felt this was a really worthwhile activity and I was impressed at how well the students could articulate their thoughts about game evaluation.

We then want these students to use their criteria to evaluate games (online, apps, Wii) and see what things they like/dislike in the gaming world.

Game Creation

We had our first session using the game making programs yesterday, we allowed the students to simply have a muck around with the three programs – Stencylworks, Game Salad and Atmosphir. Our TSSP had downloaded the games onto the lab.

Within a few minutes we were meet with some technical difficulties…of course! The students needed a game salad account but the actual site was blocked!! Grr!! So that ruled Game Salad out for the day – 1 down… Atmosphir was the next to go… we needed to download a second component so that was out… 2 down!! Oh dear! Things were looking a bit grim! However StencylWorks was the shining light in the trio!

The students were quickly able to pick it up and begin to create simple games. It was definitely challenging and pushed the students out of their comfort zone however I was still really amazed at their ability to just sit down and figure the program out!! They worked mostly in pairs and were able to create the beginnings of simple games. The most successful seemed to create little mazes with a goal to obtain at one end (e.g. a sword) and some baddies to avoid along the way (evil chickens were popular). There was also a ‘knock bricks’ out of the way game and a simple doodle jump style game. Some children did seem a bit overwhelmed with the task and didn’t achieve much in the short session however I think they just needed to see from some of the other students that it actually was achievable!!

On the technical side again we also realised that it was important to set up a space where all the work can be saved to on the server so the kids can access it from any computer and don’t need to go back to the same computer.

We tried to do a reflection after the game building and we asked the students;

  • Today I learnt how to…
  • I am having difficulty with….
  • I wonder..

I felt that the reflection at the end was a little bit rushed and the students didn’t really produce well throughout answers and they were hard to draw away from the game creating. I really wish we had a two hour block for this class as I feel we would be able to get better quality reflections. However as this is not possible we probably just need to allow more time for the reflection or perhaps we should do it at the start of the next class. Hmm…food for thought!

We have also managed to contact a parent at the school who is a game designer, he has offered us some advice and hopefully he will be able to come in a speak to the class as well. He suggested to focus on the game design aspect and really spend time setting up the narrative of the game. I think this is an excellent idea because the storyline/back story was something that all of the class deemed as really important in their criteria and it goes to support their literacy skills as well!! (so sneaky of us!!) I really liked the idea of combining some art (drawing & sculpture) into this process and music – backgrounds, sound effects. etc! I think this stuff will really value add to the project and will help to widen the project a bit more.

So here is a list of things we plan to focus on in terms of Game Design:

A main idea (e.g. alien races warring on different planets, to a frustrated
sultana trying to escape from a kids lunchbox)
Concept of what style of game they want to make, 3D, 2D, platform, 1st
person.
Locations
Characters
Levels / Stages
Pickups
Enemies
Bosses
Sound effects
Player controls
User Interface (Menus to get around game)
Bonus levels