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Minecraft’s virtual worlds can teach real U.S. history

Technology — in the form of a video game — is a tool, Utah teacher says, and student engagement makes it work in classrooms.

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‘Power up’ » Jessica Lindl, a general manager at GlassLab, says there is already exponential growth in the use of video games in classrooms.

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Airing Thursday

o Five Utah teachers have been selected for KUED-The Salt Lake Tribune Teacher Innovation Awards, which celebrate their creative use of technology in classrooms.

The awards were given in the categories of arts, math, language arts, science and social studies.

The winners are being profiled in a continuing Tribune series this week and in a half-hour documentary airing Thursday at 7 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7.

TribTalk: Celebrating innovation

As digital devices increasingly appear in Utah classrooms, the challenge is using them effectively in teaching.

On Tuesday at 12:15 p.m., Copper Mountain Middle School teacher Tami Ewell — a KUED-The Salt Lake Tribune Teacher Innovation Award winner — and Tribune education reporter Lisa Schencker will join Jennifer Napier-Pearce to talk about technology in the classroom.

You can join the discussion by sending questions and comments to the hashtag #TribTalk on Twitter and Google+.

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But, she says, the supply of effective games is limited. "Teachers really, really want these games, but they feel there are not enough."

GlassLab is a California nonprofit that turns popular video games into educational games. It turned Electronic Arts’ SimCity simulator into SimCityEdu and recently released a language-arts game, Mars Generation One, a venture with NASA.

A good game does more than help students memorize facts or provide rewards for achievement. Learning, she says, has to be its own reward in the game.

UEN’s Bentley says educational games need to leverage the addictive aspect of games — the need to "power up or level up."

While it’s not good when a 22-year-old stays up all night playing games and sleeps all day, "the idea is it’s so addictive and so fun, it’s taking over their life," Bentley says. "What if we could help our students be addicted to learning?"

Engagement ‘makes it work’ » Emorie Mortimer, 10, says she was wary when Palmer told students they were going to play Minecraft.

"At first I thought it was off-topic," Mortimer says. "Then I realized it could be creative and be on topic."

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The students use their iPads during class to peruse information Palmer points them to, via her Nearpod multimedia presentations or on the Internet.

On a recent day, they looked at Depression-era propaganda posters during her lecture.

For five or 10 minutes at the end of each social studies class, the students log into Minecraft and build their teams’ worlds to deal with whatever historical circumstance Palmer throws their way. (The game has been stripped of zombies for use in schools.)

To cement their understanding of the Depression’s economic desperation — unemployment was at 25 percent — Palmer teaches the 10- and 11-year-olds about the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided jobs for millions of young men. Some 2,000 built trails, parking areas, campgrounds and buildings at Zion National Park from 1933 to 1942.

Students spin an electronic dial on the Smart Board to determine what their teams will create next.

Will it be a trail? A cabin? An amphitheater? A road?

"We remember it by putting it into Minecraft," explains April Murillo, 10, who spins "bridge."

Palmer also uses Minecraft in a language-arts class, where students are studying the book "Journey to Topaz" by Yoshiko Uchida, a survivor of the World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp in west-central Utah.

Those students are re-creating the camp.

Learning with technology is more challenging for the students and for teachers, Palmer says. It takes a lot of time to weave curriculum into video presentations, for instance.

She is excited by the potential, however, for students to experience collaboration and learn to discern the good information from the bad on the Internet.

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