Kamehameha Schools students use a video game to recreate a neighborhood.
Text by Brad Dell | Images by Jonas Maon
At the end of the school year, most high school students are creating science project poster boards or filling in the bubbles for final exams. But at the close of the spring 2016 semester at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama campus, former teacher Nathan Javellana’s biology classes were playing the video game Minecraft. Together, almost 100 ninth- and tenth-grade students worked to create a scaled model of SALT and its surrounding block in Our Kaka‘ako using the free-roaming construction game in which gamers build dramatically different pixelated worlds by placing multi-colored cubes across a landscape.
Released in 2011, Minecraft has made its way into many classrooms across the nation. Javellana first introduced the game to his students in 2015 to engage those with short attention spans. “The most awesome question I ever got from a student was, ‘Why do I need to learn this if I can just Google it?’” Javellana says. “In doing projects like this, my thought is, you can’t Google something that hasn’t been created yet.”
It’s not merely fun and games, though. Math classes use Minecraft to learn scaling, while history classes use it to recreate historical architecture. In Javellana’s biology classes, the game helps students learn about the changing environment via both research and in-game visualizing, with learning materials including maps that date as far back as 1887. “The whole of Ala Moana Boulevard used to be the shoreline. The kids had no idea of it. ‘Wow really, there was no land there?’” Javellana says, recalling his past students’ surprise. “The science comes in understanding that these changes can affect the environment, and that as we move forward in the development of Hawai‘i, we should consider the environment and find environmentally friendly solutions to our cities’ growth.”
To further this awareness, students built signs throughout the Minecraft world that explain what existed historically in certain areas, or why places were given their specific names. Their goal in doing so was to prompt those with access to this virtual world, including staff, faculty, and fellow students at Kamehameha Schools, to reflect on how much the changing environment and urbanization have transformed Kaka‘ako, and to learn about its history, forming a new appreciation for the area.
This wasn’t the first time Javellana used Minecraft in his classroom. Last year, the teacher piloted the program by having his class build a lo‘i kalo (taro patch) at Punalu‘u Ahupua‘a Farms, also located on Kamehameha Schools lands, to learn about its biological aspects, and about Hawaiian traditions related to it. Because of that project, four students were offered summer internships with architects and real estate agencies. Javellana says that these results, and the opportunities to better connect with his students, have been his favorite parts of the Minecraft projects.
With the Our Kaka‘ako assignment, Javellana aspired to create members of society who are mindful of what is both added and removed in the process of building a neighborhood. “Employers don’t need the person with the degree,” he says. “They need the person that has the skillset to network, to be innovative and create a product that helps people, changes the world, that helps society, that changes communities.”