Building our understanding of diabetes with Minecraft (even if you don’t have the game!)

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The inside of the human body, and all its organs, cells and molecules can be tricky to visualise, and that makes it difficult to understand how conditions like diabetes work. We can use things like models to help us see all these different features, and work out how they link together to do different things.

But models can take up a lot of space, and most of us don’t have anatomically accurate physical representations of the internal workings of the human body conveniently accessible at home, or even in many schools. Diagrams are an alternative, but they’re generally not very interactive.

The virtual construction game Minecraft, on the other hand, is great for exploring scientific concepts because it has many features and processes that relate to the real world, and can be used to visualise things that we can’t usually see – such as cells in the human body. Children and young people are often familiar with the game as it’s hugely popular, and this can give them a sense of expertise and ownership. We know Minecraft can act as a hook for children to engage with science topics, and that by participating in our sessions they can increase their subject knowledge and understanding, making it an effective tool for both catching children’s interest, and supporting their learning.

So what if we could use Minecraft to view and explore a large model of a human body on a computer? We could even get right inside it to investigate the internal organs, cells and processes.

In our ‘Building our understanding of diabetes with Minecraft’ project, we did just that. We have a human body constructed in Minecraft, which users can move around inside. They can explore the organs, cells and molecules inside it, and visualise and learn about processes that occur when someone does, and does not, have diabetes.

During the 2019-2020 school year, we began using this specially constructed Minecraft human body to deliver sessions about diabetes in schools in England and Scotland. However, now we are unable to do that during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve created a slideshow to explain how diabetes works, using examples from the Minecraft build to illustrate components and concepts, and an accompanying video run through of the Minecraft human body. This way, more people can explore diabetes and the human body in Minecraft, even if we can’t visit them in schools or they don’t have Minecraft at home.

The slideshow and video can be used together, or the slideshow can be used as standalone resource. Each takes you on a virtual tour through the human body, exploring the relevant parts and processes involved in diabetes. They talk about what it’s like to have diabetes, and how it’s treated, and explore the pancreas, blood vessels, and cells and molecules to learn about their roles in diabetes. If you would like a creative challenge, the slideshow gives some ideas for activities, including building with Minecraft and Lego.  

The slideshow and video can be viewed below.

If you use the resources, we would really appreciate some feedback! There is a short online form here where you can report how children and young people found using them.

Project information

Exploring the molecular basis of diabetes with Minecraft is a Science Hunters project based at UWE Bristol, in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen, the University of Hull and Lancaster University and funded by a Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund grant. The project was devised by Dr Laura Hobbs (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr John Barrow (Aberdeen) and Professor Mark Lorch (Hull), and developed and delivered by them along with Sophie Bentley (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr Jackie Hartley (Lancaster), Naziya Lokat (Lancaster), Jonathan Kim (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Rebecca Rose (Lancaster), Dr Carly Stevens (Lancaster) and Jordan Bibby (NHS Lanarkshire). Science Hunters projects takes a child-led, play-based approach to learning and engagement, and have an inclusive Widening Participation ethos.

Laura Hobbs and Sophie Bentley

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