Teaching with qCraft

How do you teach quantum physics to a 7-year-old?

Clearly the math and physics required are too difficult to attempt a rigorous study of the science.  And gaining a true understanding of quantum phenomenon means accepting that the universe functions very differently on a minuscule scale than it does in our everyday experience.  This kind of conceptual leap can be quite challenging for a young person who only truly believes what they can see with their own eyes.

So why bother?  Does a young child need to know what is happening in the subatomic world around them?  I think the answer is an unqualified “yes”.

By the time our 7-year-old finishes grad school, quantum computers may be commonplace.  A fundamental shift is on the horizon.  Some of the hardest problems in medicine, aerospace, statistics, and more will be tackled by machines using qubits instead of bits.  And it is the kids of today who will research, build, and utilize this revolutionary new class of hardware.  And to be perfectly frank, too few children are exposed to these sciences or are encouraged to pursue them as a career path.

We set out to address that by meeting kids where they choose to spend their time: in Minecraft.

I am quite proud of the way we’ve used Minecraft to illustrate some of the trickiest concepts in quantum physics.  Blocks exhibit observer dependency and change according to who looks at them and how.  Superpositional blocks can be more than one thing simultaneously.  Entangled blocks are linked over vast distances across the Minecraft world.  These are big words and big concepts in physics, but we’ve translated them into new-yet-familiar Minecraft blocks.  And if there is one thing kids today are used to, it’s figuring out new game mechanics and the potentials they unlock.

It is our firm belief that when a young person who has played qCraft encounters these challenging concepts again, they will have an increased intuitive understanding.

Perhaps they will encounter them years later in a high school or college physics course.  Or perhaps they will encounter them again much sooner in their own explorations online.  Children are naturally inquisitive and will hunt for understanding of the unfamiliar.  It is our hope that after learning new scientific concepts in Minecraft, our players will seek to learn more on their own.

A quick Google search for the term “entanglement” will lead an inquisitive youngster down a fascinating rabbit hole, indeed…

Joel Levin is Education Director at TeacherGaming. He blogs and tweets as the Minecraft Teacher.

Interpreting quantum physics in a game

‘Learning games’ or ‘games for learning?’ People in our industry tend to use the terms interchangeably, but I prefer ‘games for learning.’ It puts the emphasis on the ‘games’ part. It reminds me that, first and foremost, a game that hopes to foster learning must still be fun. There’s no reason learning itself can’t be fun, of course, whether it happens in a game or not: in fact, I’d say it inherently is. But a game for learning really has to be.

Collaborating with our friends at Google, MincraftEdu and IQIM to make qCraft was a fascinating exercise in finding the intersection of fun Minecraft gameplay and meaningful learning about quantum mechanics. As Dr. M describes in his blog post, our original design was focused more on finding ways to simulate how quantum computers work with things like CNOT gates and qubits. Simulations can be great learning tools, but they aren’t games, and while that design was interesting, it was hard to do the science justice (it turns out simulating a quantum computer with a classical computer is really hard) and the result was not quite as fun as we would have liked. It also didn’t take advantage of the things that can make games great learning tools. In particular, games let you dive in and experience worlds and identities that you never could in real life.

It’s probably unrealistic to think that a Minecraft mod — or any game — could comprehensively cover a topic as complex and hotly debated as quantum mechanics. What we hope a game can do is create a gateway into understanding and experiencing quantum phenomena.

For most people, the notion that something might have different properties based on whether or how it is being observed is a really strange notion totally unlike anything we experience firsthand in the real, macroscopic world. The same is true of other precursor or foundational concepts in quantum mechanics like superposition and entanglement. If a game could help players make this ‘quantum leap’ — and do it in a fun way — that might just be interesting and even useful.

As our design evolved, we asked ourselves what it would mean if players could actually experience, for example, observer dependency in the the Minecraft world. The possibilities for fun gameplay quickly became apparent: structures that reconfigured themselves when you look at them, mazes that change while your back is turned, etc. But could these kind of playful experiences actually change players’ intuitions about how the world works? If they could, would it make real quantum phenomena seem a little less alien? Would players who never studied quantum physics before be motivated to learn more about them? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but we’re excited to find out.

Brian Alspach is Executive Vice President at E-Line Media, one of the organizations collaborating on qCraft.