Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In the News: Video Game Leads to Geology Knowledge

By Mia Clarke,
The Telegraph Journal, September 22, 2014

Joan Pearce can hardly believe she’s extolling the virtues of a video game. But the 74-year-old retired teacher has seen how Minecraft has piqued the interest of young people in rocks, minerals and the environment around them.

Although she’s been retired for 20 years, she’s been visiting classrooms again lately as the head of Stonehammer Geopark’s education committee.The committee’s goal is to educate students about Stonehammer by incorporating local material into the established curriculum. Last year, Stonehammer officials reached 800 students in 17 schools and they’re hoping to reach even more this year.

Pearce said she was often surprised at how much students knew about geology.“When I asked the students a question about geology, I wasn’t really expecting anybody to have the answer, but someone usually did and I’d say ‘Oh, how do you know that?’” The answer was always the same – they knew it from playing Minecraft.

Minecraft is a video game that allows players to gather and mine resources and use those items to craft tools and other things necessary for survival. Along the way, players learn about soil, rocks, minerals and ore.

As a self-described “old-fashioned teacher,” Pearce thinks children already spend too much time playing video games. But seeing how Mine-craft could spark students’ curiosity about geology helped change her mind – at least about this one game. Pearce believes sparking a student’s curiosity is the key to teaching them about the world around them. And that spark can happen anywhere – from the classroom to the zip line, explained Gail Bremner, the executive director of Stonehammer.
“Our goal is to educate people – be they two or 92 – about the earth,”said Bremner. “What Stonehammer is doing in the classroom is very hands-on and we can take everyday things, like Plasticine and pennies and tell a story about how fossils are made.

“I really think it’s about getting students curious as well as learning,” said   Bremner. “Most kids have rock collections; most kids are already interested. So if we foster that interest, we can relate that to the world around them and we can relate that to Stone-hammer.”

While not everyone will be interested in rocks, but the “billion years of history” that Stonehammer promotes may inspire students in other   ways, said Pearce. One student, for example, took what he learned about the fault line that runs through Saint John and used it to create a 20-minute film about a “catastrophic disaster that befell Saint John,” explained Pearce. While the film may not have been scientifically accurate, it was inspired by what the student had learned. “Sometimes the accuracy might be questionable,” said Bremner with a laugh, “but we’re happy that they’re out checking it out and using the technology of today to document what they’ve found or what they’re seeing. It’s about looking and investigating. “That’s what we’re trying to spark – the curiosity. Because we truly believe that the best way to look after the earth is to understand how it came to be – from a geological perspective,” said Bremner.

Stonehammer has been working with other organizations, like Mining Matters, to help develop professional-development workshops for science teachers and to create a collection of hands-on activities geared toward each of the grade levels where the curriculum touches on geology
– grades 4 and 8 and in high-school physical geography classes.

Pearce’s education committee is also responsible for increasing awareness in the community. She said she “keeps running into people who don’t know what Stonehammer is.” “My personal goal would be to try to get more of our local people knowing what Stonehammer is and I think that’s a really huge job.”

Stonehammer is North America’s first and – for the moment, at least – only UNESCO-recognized geopark. The park is a collection of physical sites that include 500-million-year-old fossils and billion-year-old rocks along with more abstract components like folklore, culture and a history of exploration. This week, Stonehammer takes centre stage as it hosts the sixth International UNESCO Conference on Global Geoparks. More than 450 delegates from more than 30 countries are in Saint John for the conference, which runs until Monday.

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