Building an understanding of diabetes with Minecraft

Science Hunters engages children of all ages with science using the popular computer game Minecraft.

The inside of the human body, and all its organs, cells and molecules can be tricky to visualise, and that makes it difficult to understand how conditions like diabetes work. We can use things like models to help us see all these different features, and work out how they link together to do different things.

But models can take up a lot of space, and most of us don’t have anatomically accurate physical representations of the internal workings of the human body conveniently accessible at home, or even in many schools. Diagrams are an alternative, but they’re generally not very interactive.

The virtual construction game Minecraft, on the other hand, is great for exploring scientific concepts because it has many features and processes that relate to the real world, and can be used to visualise things that we can’t usually see – such as cells in the human body. Children and young people are often familiar with the game as it’s hugely popular, and this can give them a sense of expertise and ownership.

Minecraft – Inside the cell

The recent ‘Building our Understanding of Diabetes with Minecraft’ (BUD-M) project, developed by Science Hunters and led by UWE Bristol in collaboration with the Universities of Lancaster, Aberdeen and Hull, uses Minecraft to help children understand the molecular basis of diabetes.

We know Minecraft can act as a hook for children to engage with science topics, and that students who participated in the BUD-M project increased their subject knowledge and understanding, making it an effective tool for both catching children’s interest, and supporting their learning.

The team developed a school session that introduced diabetes and how it works within the human body, followed by exploration of a specially built human body in Minecraft. Once school visits were curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions, two videos were produced for use in schools and at home – introducing diabetes and taking children through the Minecraft human body. These videos are freely available for schools to use, and giving some very short feedback would be very useful to the project.

Minecraft – Inside a blood vessel

The videos take you on a virtual tour through the human body, exploring the relevant parts and processes involved in diabetes. They talk about what it’s like to have diabetes, and how it’s treated, and explore the pancreas, blood vessels, and cells and molecules to learn about their roles in diabetes. If you would like a creative challenge, the introducing diabetes video gives some ideas for activities, including building with Minecraft and Lego.

The human body world was constructed by Jonathan Kim, who has produced three videos to complement those used to deliver the session. These cover design and planning of the world, construction of the human body in Minecraft, and the techniques used in the technical creation of the world. They can be viewed on the BUD-M playlist on YouTube.

Exploring the molecular basis of diabetes with Minecraft is a Science Hunters project based at UWE Bristol, in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen, the University of Hull and Lancaster University and funded by a Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund grant. The project was devised by Dr Laura Hobbs (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr John Barrow (Aberdeen) and Professor Mark Lorch (Hull), and developed and delivered by them along with Sophie Bentley (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr Jackie Hartley (Lancaster), Naziya Lokat (Lancaster), Jonathan Kim (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Rebecca Rose (Lancaster), Dr Carly Stevens (Lancaster) and Jordan Bibby (NHS Lanarkshire). Science Hunters projects takes a child-led, play-based approach to learning and engagement, and have an inclusive Widening Participation ethos.


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