School on Mars

Written for OnEducation by Audrey Thornborrow

This spring, I had the awesome opportunity to work with one of Mississippi Heights Elementary’s fifth grade teachers, Faith Bila, on a project-based learning unit. Faith wanted to allow her students to learn and meet state standards through a project in which they would design and build a school on Mars. Faith met many reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language state standards while offering her students a chance to learn about Mars, work on math standards, and creatively express their learning with a hands-on project. Students learned about Mars’ characteristics i.e. climate, environment, atmosphere, etc. through books and online resources. They then worked through the human-centered design process to design a school that would keep the students safe and would meet all their needs, academic as well as survival. Students created blue prints, proposed their ideas, and defended their ideas before moving on to the actual prototype and testing phases of the process. Just in time, Glen sent an email that licenses were ready to be used, and Faith’s ingenuity sparked her to try adding Minecraft into the project so students could choose to build within the game or build a physical school out of cardboard and other materials. We all loved the idea and got to work. Glen, Faith, and I worked collaboratively to get students started, trained, and working in Minecraft: Education Edition.


Throughout the process, I saw students engaged in, excited, and persistent about their work. They collaborated, communicated, critically thought through problems, and were creative in their solutions. Students who normally were “too cool for school”, disengaged, or very quiet and reluctant to share, were suddenly energized and willing to share their knowledge with others. Students who may have never felt like they excelled in school suddenly were the experts. This new found confidence was electric and palpable to all.

At the culmination of the unit, students presented their schools to a panel of judges made up of parents, community members, teachers, and school administrators. They shared their designs and presented a persuasive speech about why their school should be the one school chosen to be built on Mars. This is really where students were able to show how awesome having Minecraft: Education Edition in the classroom actually was.


Not only did the School on Mars project allow students to meet ELA, science, and math standards, it also allowed them to be creative, to have choice, and to practice the skills of communication with an audience beyond the teacher. It let their voices shine. I was blown away by how many school designs showed me what students felt to be important or even lacking within the school designs they see every day. From a larger focus on students with special needs to more mindfulness and mental health classes/spaces students designed and built to meet the needs of all students. Through this project, we educators were able to understand more acutely the needs of the students as they see them. We were better able to hear their ideas and see evidence of their learning. We were better able to understand because Minecraft gave the students a voice they may not have known they had before.

Mike WashburnComment