Outside The Box: Corona Teacher Uses Popular Video Game to Teach Geometry

“People say, ‘Oh, they’re just playing video games,’” says Tristan Grandy. “But it’s much more than that.” 

He logs in to a computer and enters what he calls “a world without limits that holds infinite possibilities.” He is playing Minecraft, one of the hottest video games on the market, where anything can be built with cubes. 

Grandy shows off a virtual, three-dimensional replica of their school’s gymnasium he and classmate Aiden Lawrence are building, while other student teams construct virtual classrooms, locker rooms and other areas of their Centennial High School campus in Corona. A shared drive allows a panoramic view of the entire “campus” under construction by teams, or the ability to focus on a single area.

Through virtual construction, students are learning geometry from a teacher who thinks outside the cube. Brian Kenney, unlike most adults, doesn’t consider video games to be a waste of time. In fact, Kenney teaches video game design classes at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels at Centennial, in a program that connects with nearby Norco College. He hopes to have “feeder” programs soon at the middle school.

Years ago, he taught algebra to ninth-graders who had failed the subject in eighth grade. He realized that his students did not like math but loved playing video games. They did not enjoy the drill-type games mostly available on educational software, which they considered boring.

Why not use games they already like? A happy worker is a productive worker. They want to play some games over and over that have a lot of math in them. So I did some research and wrote a grant.

As one of three teachers in the U.S. to receive a $40,000 grant from the Entertainment Software Association Foundation, he started an experimental class last year using popular, nonviolent video games to teach geometry. Half of the students enrolled have “mild-to-moderate” learning disabilities, and the other half are “peer tutors” from his video game design classes. Students meet twice weekly and sometimes on Saturdays.

The virtual construction fosters students’ geometry skills. For example, they post signs on different types of angles in what they are building, such as right angles, congruent triangles, supplementary and complementary angles, and isosceles triangles.

It’s so much fun, they may not be aware they are learning math. According to Kenney of the Corona Norco Teachers Association

They can’t get enough of it. Their buy-in makes my job so much easier. One special education student dropped out, and he was persuaded to come back to school because of the video game design program and playing Minecraft. He said, ‘I don’t want to miss this.’

Before venturing into the virtual world, students walk around the campus and measure buildings and distance between buildings with tape measures, convert to meters, and then scale their measurements to a 2:1 ratio before recreating what they have measured with virtual blocks. The hands-on math adds another dimension to their learning, as does the teamwork and collaboration that develops.

His students say the innovative class makes geometry, well, real.

While busily building a virtual locker room inside the gym, Ivette Ochoa explains,

Geometry was a little bit hard, before. But I get it now. I’m learned how to measure the width and length of a triangle and the area on a building using the building blocks.

Samuel Rios says building the school’s outdoor area near the tennis courts helped him to understand concepts of angles and triangles.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but I can do it,” he says of figuring out ratios and measurements in a virtual world. Kenney and special education teacher Kunane Burns assess students every few weeks to see whether the strategies are paying off. They say it’s early, but they’ve seen improvement.

Overall, the effectiveness of off-the-shelf video games in teaching academics has not been heavily studied, according to research scientist H. Chad Lane, who specializes in educational games and artificial intelligence at University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Some studies show they improve creativity, spatial awareness and cognition; others show they hurt academics because students spend more time playing instead of studying.

When Burns first became involved in the pilot project, he had no idea of what Minecraft was. 

I liked the idea of doing something outside the box. We are taking geometry concepts learned in my classroom and applying it to a game in a way that’s three-dimensional, engaging, and based on something they are interested in. Why not take a chance on something new?

The games may progress to a new level this year, as peer tutors go beyond Minecraft and use games they created in Kenney’s video game design classes for teaching geometry and algebra. Aiden Lawrence is proud of a game he designed giving players “rewards” for right answers, with special effects like doors opening into mystery rooms or caverns. 

Kenney encourages teachers to embrace technology students enjoy, such as video games and smartphones, because they have applications for learning — and fighting them may be a losing battle.

If you call for society to have innovation, you have to teach in a way that keeps kids interested. And if we don’t keep them interested, we might miss out on a lot of talent that’s out there.

This article originally appeared in CTA's California Educator.