Teaching kids how to code with Minecraft

Maintaining a focus on fun and interactivity keeps students engaged and enthused while learning Java.

I am jealous of kids these days. The sheer breadth and depth of technology and software at their disposal is staggering, everything from Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and Scratch to Minecraft, Python, and iOS app development. What’s even more profound to me is how fluent they are in using and interacting with these technologies. And yet during this process of assimilation, they are mastering fundamental mathematical concepts, like trigonometry, by figuring out how to shoot an arrow in Minecraft, as opposed to the classical way of learning the formulas. Or in learning how to program in Python, they are creating a game of Tic-Tac-Toe. Or in understanding basic circuits, they are building a traffic light using Arduino or Squishy Circuits.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be involved with Devoxx4Kids, a Not-for-Profit, 501(c)(3) registered organization in the U.S., whose goal is to deliver Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) workshops to kids at an early age around the world. We delivered over 40 workshops in the U.S. alone last year on topics ranging from Python, Scratch, and Minecraft modding to NAO robots, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and Little Circuits. Globally, we’ve delivered over 350 workshops and connected with approximately 5,000 students, with over 30% girls. Attendees from these workshops often leave with unique and inspirational stories to share.

Our Minecraft Modding workshops require no prior programming experience. Attendees are elementary school students, primarily from the 4th and 5th grades. During these workshops, we focus on developing simple mods, such as creating a stack of 64 potatoes when you type the word “potato” into the chat bar of the game. Such simplicity allows us to dive in and explain some of the most fundamental concepts behind Java. For example, with the potato mod, students develop an understanding of the Java Development Kit (JDK), they discover how to run a program using Eclipse, as well as how to work with classes, methods, strings, integer variables, and if-statements. The excitement of creating new mods, such as spawning an Ender Dragon, alerting a user when a creeper is spawned, and turning snowballs into arrows, allows students to learn even more fundamentals like the “for loop,” comparing objects, and !, &&, and || operators.

It’s gratifying to witness the amount of progress and “fluency” our students achieve in these workshops. Students often ask to see different variations of a mod every week, and with the help of my son, Aditya, who is an experienced Minecraft player and modder in his own right, we will sit down and create these mods. One of the most exciting moments for me came during the 7th week of a recent workshop when the code for a mod was displayed on the projector without an explanation. To my surprise, the students were able to read the code and explain the meaning. I had goosebumps seeing how quickly their Minecraft vocabulary was helping them to become a Java programmer. I’ve seen professional developers complain about ceremony around Java “syntax.” But I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about the language: it’s meant to be read by both computers and humans. Further details about this effort are explained in my blog post, Minecraft Modding Course at Elementary School — Teach Java to Kids.

The gamification of education is becoming a reality these days. My first grade son is learning mathematics by playing a game and hitting on a robot’s head to traverse through a maze, whereas my oldest son is learning Java concepts by modding Minecraft. I think this is a natural evolution. Given the speed with which technology is expanding and becoming an omnipresent part of our identity, it’s important to keep our kids engaged and enthused while learning. What’s more, we should also be teaching our kids how to be producers of software and content — and not just consumers. They may not pick up Computer Science as their subject of choice in high school or college. But workshops like these, with a focus on fun and interactivity, will at least ensure they are not alien to technology, and programming more broadly. This is how we can provide a competitive edge to our kids for many years to come.

Editor’s note: If you are interested in learning more about Minecraft modding, pick up a copy of Arun and Aditya’s latest book, Minecraft Modding with Forge. You can also check out a replay of their live webcast, Create Minecraft Mods In Less Than an Hour with Forge.

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