by Meredith Storrs, Assistant Director of Communications
Instead of the endless Punnett squares of yesteryear, Brentwood students in Ms. Easley's science classes are exploring genetic concepts by breeding sheep in the virtual world of Minecraft.
7th grader Natalie C. designed the digital environment for the student experiments and worked with Middle School Educational Technology Coordinator Bob Kahn to design the parameters for the project. Natalie's Minecraft world includes a set of pens, which are used as lab spaces for each student group to breed sheep. When Ms. Easley introduced this project to her students, she discovered that over half of them already knew how to play Minecraft. She paired a knowledgable student with a Minecraft-newbie for tutorials on how to operate the program. At the top of each class, everyone logs into the world and requests supplies from Natalie or Mr. Kahn, who operate as administrators.
The set-up for this experiment requires a little suspension of disbelief—in Minecraft, lab groups are given "eggs" to spawn their parent sheep. Sheep come in a range of natural colors or can be dyed pink, blue, orange, and so forth. Dying a sheep actually alters its "genetic code," so once these little boxy lambs are properly matured and tinted, they can be bred in a series of experiments.
What makes this project especially exciting is that the results are still a mystery even to the designers. Mr. Kahn explains that he has often wondered what kind of genetics coding is programmed into Minecraft. The class has already discovered some general patterns. The game appears to have coded "true/pure breeding," as all sheep coming from matching parents are the same color, but when you start breeding different colors together some interesting results arise. A white sheep with a blue sheep appears to consistently make a light blue lamb, but an orange sheep with a black sheep will sometimes produce an orange lamb, and sometimes a black lamb. Watching these experiments unfold offers the opportunity to talk about genetic concepts like incomplete dominance and dominant/recessive traits.
Still, many questions relating to dominance and recessiveness remain on the table. If you breed same-color sheep 100 or 1000 times, will you always get matching offspring or are mutations possible in Minecraft? What happens when you breed the light blue offspring of a white and blue sheep with a purebred white sheep? What about two sheep that have differing color mixtures? Mr. Kahn explains, "I want the kids to ask those 'what if?' questions and then design the experiment to figure it out."
But why Minecraft? Natalie likes the "open sandbox" that Minecraft provides: "When you can harness the creative spirit inspired by a game like Minecraft, it helps to connect to what you're learning in a fun way."