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UMaine researchers foster STEM interest through Minecraft

A cooperative research team consisting of members from the University of Illinois and the University of Maine’s Department of Physics and Astronomy are working together to promote interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics using the video game Minecraft as the platform. This project is to be funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Neil F. Comins, a professor of physics in the UMaine Physics and Astronomy Department commented that the project began with his partner Chad Lane of the University of Illinois. Lane’s work focused on younger students to promote knowledge of STEM topics through the use of Minecraft. Lane wanted students to be able to ask and search for the answers to ‘what if’ questions.

We both have experienced young people, among others, who ask ‘what if?’ questions and enjoy exploring the consequences,”  Comins stated, noting that Lane then had the idea of combining “what if” questions with scientifically valid answers in Minecraft. 

When Lane contacted Comins regarding his research on ‘what if’ questions, the decision was made to team up with the University of Illinois. According to Professor Comins, Professor Lane learned through a mutual friend of the books, articles, talks and shows I have written that ask and answer ‘what if?’ questions, such as ‘What if the Moon Didn’t Exist?’ or ‘What if the Earth had two moons?’” 

Comins has written a book which explores these questions and more that allow people to discover alternate scenarios about the world that we live in. In his book “What If The Earth had Two Moons?” he explores how the earth would function if two moons orbited the planet, and where they would come from. He also explores the idea of having other celestial bodies orbiting the earth, which would affect life on earth to a point where it may not be sustainable. 

Kids love to ask questions like these, and to be able to have a model which encourages kids to keep exploring alternate scenarios can lead to scientific breakthroughs. 

As Comins stated, it is important for the interest in STEM topics to be started at a young age so that children will foster their interests in investigation.

“These topics [can be] careers and it’s important for all of them to understand why scientists and engineers use STEM topics to advance the technological needs of society,” Comins stated. 

Comins anticipates that these “what if” questions could range from “what if the Earth had two moons?” or “what if the Earth was closer or farther away from the Sun?”

“For me, exploring the consequences of ‘what if?’ questions began when my older son was a young child asking such questions. Having created numerous worlds based on ‘what if?’ questions, I find the process and the results fascinating,” Comins said. 

Young people will have the ability to explore any questions they have on STEM topics and consider how the separate worlds in Minecraft vary from the outside world. The hope is that exploring these worlds through a program that young people actually use will generate independent interests in an array of STEM issues.


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