The Shedd Aquarium, Minecraft, and Virtual Piranha: An Interview with Wade Berger

Wade Berger is the Teen Learning Lab Manager at Shedd Aquarium. Shedd features the largest and most diverse collection of animals in any Aquarium in the world, one of largest cultural institutions in Chicago, and contains 32,000 animals representing more than 1,500 species. And last year Wade initiated their exploration of Minecraft. At the March Digital Media and Learning Conference in Boston, I caught up with him to see what they were doing. 

So, let’s jump right into it.  When did you start at the Shedd and when did you start using Minecraft?

So, I started there in September and the Teen Learning Lab opened a week minecraft backgroundafter as a free drop-in space for High School teens. The Teen Lab is supposed to be a hub for all the teen programs that happen at the Aquarium. With my background in games and learning from the University of Madison, I had been in contact with Joel Levin from MinecraftEdu. We talked a lot about different ways to use the game with several teachers at the Games Learning Society Conference. I knew there had to be a way in our drop-in program to use Minecraft, to connect teens while they are here but also figure out a way to open it up to teens who can’t make it to the lab. 

So, we purchased all the licenses in November and we’ve actually started on a small scale with it. We haven’t told people it’s officially there except for a couple of teens who have come to some workshops with us to try it out and to experiment with it.

It’s been about four months or so. How have you used Minecraft so far?

We’ve done a couple of different things. It’s a good intro into some of the game design pieces that we’ve wanted to do. For example, we have a teen who is really excited to recreate Echo, a game series where you are a dolphin and you swim around, jumping over things and use echolocation to help save other dolphins. Minecraft gives him a quick way to visualize the space that he’s going to build for this game. So Minecraft is an intermediate piece to some of the game design we want to do. Game design is a great vehicle for teens to explore computational thinking, which is an important skill for many of the careers at the Aquarium and in Marine Biology.

We have a learning outcome at the Aquarium where we want teens to be able to have empathy or curiosity for the natural world. We hope Minecraft also opens those learning pathways.

How do you do that?

IMG_3192We use a painting program, called WorldPainter, to actually paint something that you would do in middle school in a 2-D space – here’s the mountains, here’s the plains in-between, here’s the ocean – but now the paint brushes that you use are painting blocks from Minecraft.

No way!

So when you paint on iron ore deposits it will have those deposits when you bring it into Minecraft, but now in a 3-D space.

So you create it in WorldPainter and then bring it into Minecraft?

Into Minecraft, yeah. Super simple. It actually creates a saved world for you.

Over the winter, we hosted a workshop where teens created these worlds. The teams drew out their ecosystems like they would have done in middle school, but these are high school teens—it was a little more complicated. Then we went and played each person’s world, once they were in Minecraft. While playing we found that water flows really differently in the game. We were like, Wait? Why is the water flowing vertically here? Another teen did a desert biome but then we found that the animals were populated in a weird way that wasn’t specific to that biome in the real world.

We learned that Minecraft doesn’t naturally come with all the species that we would like in the game. So one of our teens spent several hours trying to find mod’s that we could use, so we could input all of the species that we wanted to have into the game.

Such as?

A lot of aquatic life. The game naturally comes with a jelly fish monster, but we wanted to have sharks, whales and dolphins. And more specific types of land animals that would be related to the aquarium: amphibians, reptiles, coral, etc.. And then not just your iconic marine life, like your sharks, whales or piranhas, but more specifically, say, if we were to have just Great Lakes native species like carp, or Arapaima–which is in the Amazon.

So, just to be clear, Minecraft comes with one aquatic creature?

Yeah.

minecraftsign copy2So when you’re talking about youth adding all these other both aquatic and land animals where are they coming from?

So in most cases it’s a combination of mod’s.

What’s a mod?

A Mod is… it’s a set of files that alter the javascript of Minecraft.

And who makes those? The game developers?

No, a community. The community of Minecraft users is very strong. One person starts a forum thread, saying, “Hey, I want to make kelp” —which is a mod we have not figured out how to get to work yet so it’s a good example. Once a topic is posted, then this whole new forum starts up, and they create art files and they put together pieces of the javascript to make it all work.

So let’s talk about the future. Now that you’ve been doing this for about four or five months, what are some key lessons you’ve learned that will inform your plans for how to use Minecraft in the future?

I’ve really noticed that even my part time staff in the Teen Llab will see us doing something and they’re like, “Oh! I want to raise my own pet shark!” The teens want to jump in. My goal would be to have a teen build a world that we always play, but it’s also available outside the lab, to teens outside the aquarium who are playing at home.

I’ve heard great stories of teachers who have turned the game on and had kids playing at home, for homework, and they’re up at four in the morning. I’m not saying we want them to play at four in the morning, but, well, we haven’t figured out yet what kids want to play. Is the idea that we should build an ecosystem, or that we build the Shedd Aquarium, or is it more about picking one of our species and building its entire habitat?

Do you know any other aquariums, zoos or museums (other than my own) that are exploring Minecraft for teaching science or for teaching their own museum content?

I haven’t seen it.

So what does it feel like to be on the forefront?

It feels like we’re in a great position to highlight the work we’re doing with Minecraft and to introduce similar organizations to this shared world. There’s so much potential for teens and other students to get involved, and we have a responsibility now to help spread the word.There could be great potential. We could have a world that our teens are all sharing, having the same experience.

When Wade says “we” he’s pointing at me. 

Yeah…

So how do you think interviews like this help to advance that conversation, build that community?

For some of the questions I have, there are people out there who have the answers. Minecraft is, from what I experience, very simple JavaScript, and there are people who understand it well enough to do the things that we want. It will take more communication to collaborate on what we can do, and then we can have our own museum and informal learning space.

Any final word?

We’re doing other stuff with Sketchup, and exporting Sketchup files into Minecraft as well. It’s very interesting to see how a kid might make something in Sketchup that goes into Minecraft and then using that same Sketchup file to 3D print it.

But it’s not about the tool. Minecraft isn’t the solution. It could be Sketchup. It could be 3D printing. For me, the most important this is just a teen questioning and investigating a particular interest he or she has.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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2 Responses to The Shedd Aquarium, Minecraft, and Virtual Piranha: An Interview with Wade Berger

  1. Rick Henderson says:

    As a leader, and an instructor at national institution, both of you should learn by now that Minecraft doesn’t use Javascript it uses a different language called Java, and it is far from simple.

  2. Wade says:

    Rick-
    Thanks for pointing that out. I am more of a novice with Minecraft than the teens I work at Shedd. Minecraft definitely uses Java, and as you rightly pointed out, it is more complex than JavaScript. It still seems there are quite a few people on the Minecraft forums learning Java to make better Mods, so I have hope our teens could make an attempt to do so too.

    http://www.minecraftforum.net/topic/703243-learn-java/

    Thanks!
    Wade

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