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La Cañada High freshman hopes to mine teacher interest in Minecraft as classroom tool

La Canada High School 7/8 seventh-grader Devyn Oh helps explain Minecraft: Education Edition to Zhan
La Cañada High School freshman Devyn Oh explains the online game Minecraft to Zhanna Borzelliere and son Oliver, 6, at a Minecraft Expo, part of Oh’s Eagle Scout project. The teen hopes to introduce teachers to the benefits of using the online game to augment in-class lessons.
(Tim Berger / La Cañada Valley Sun)

Video games in the classroom may sound like a gamer’s dream come true but for La Cañada High School freshman Devyn Oh, a devotee of the computer game Minecraft, the concept is an idea worth exploring.

Oh started playing Minecraft as a fifth-grader and was instantly hooked. The game allows players to enter or create virtual worlds, where they can build structures and destroy them using an inventory of tools and blocks.

“There’s really no end, you can do what you want,” said the 14-year-old, unable to calculate the hours he’s spent playing Minecraft. “It’s so open and creative. It’s my creative outlet.”

Unveiled to the public in 2009, the “sandbox” game (so called for resembling its analog counterpart, where participants use tools to construct, topple and reconstruct whatever they wish) reached a fever pitch among gamers but is now enjoyed mainly by the elementary set.

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“Minecraft: Education Edition” lets educators augment in-class lessons with video game sessions that allow kids to collaborate with classmates, learn more about a subject matter and document and share work.

The opening screen of the Minecraft: Education Edition at a Minecraft Expo, hosted by La Canada High
The opening screen of the Minecraft: Education Edition at an April 19 Minecraft Expo, hosted by La Cañada High School freshman Devyn Oh.
(Tim Berger / La Cañada Valley Sun)

For his Eagle Scout project, Oh made a pitch to La Cañada Unified elementary teachers — give him three months to design a Minecraft world around a particular lesson and then let kids use their computer lab time to engage in that lesson through game play.

“Because it’s so creative it can be educational and you can learn different things while still having fun, which is something lost in the world today,” he reckoned.

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La Cañada Elementary School second-grade teacher Jennifer Crocker took Oh up on his offer. Kids would soon be learning about volcanoes, she figured, and having a fun side project related to the topic might help reinforce the subject matter.

“I’m really big on tech in the classroom, and my kids are really into [Minecraft], so I thought, why not give it a shot?” she recalled.

On March 25, Oh showed the second-graders the volcanic world he and his team had made for them. They journeyed inside, using pickaxes to separate soft ash from surrounding layers of basalt, then watched from a helicopter while an exploding volcano spewed virtual lava.

The kids liked it so much, Oh is now creating another Minecraft world to accompany a book Crocker will soon teach, “My Father’s Dragon.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how he can create something from a book,” Crocker said.

On Friday, Oh hosted a Minecraft Expo in LCHS’s Information Resource Center to introduce parents and teachers to the game as a learning tool.

Palm Crest Elementary School mom Zhanna Borzelliere brought sons Oliver, 6, and 4-year-old Julian. Although Oliver isn’t allowed to play video games at home yet, he’s heard all about Minecraft from friends.

“He got super excited to come here because he heard this was about Minecraft, and he was actually allowed to do it,” Borzelliere said. “If it’s something educational, and it’s taught through the school environment and enhances the brain, I support it.”

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At a computer station, Oliver breezed through a tutorial on how to move, jump and break blocks. In no time flat, he was pickaxing his way through Oh’s volcano lesson. Soon, students of all ages were playing in their own worlds together.

La Cañada Unified’s chief technology officer, Jamie Lewsadder, said Oh’s experiment was a good lesson for her as well.

“I’m really interested that students have another way to share their learning,” she said. “We have kids who love to play video games and all day it’s, ‘Get off,’ and ‘That’s not allowed.’ But what if they did something with that?”

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine


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