Educational Technology

Modeling Living on Mars in Minecraft

Last semester my high school biology class wrapped up a Mars Biosphere Project. For the project, my students had to build their understanding of basic biology concepts and then create a sustainable biosphere on Mars showcasing and applying their new-found knowledge. The lesson plans for this project were created by a few amazing district high school science teachers who wanted to provide students an opportunity to extend and apply their biology learning. My students’ task for this project was the following:

Mars Explorers NASA

Mars Biosphere Project

Your task is to work with your team to design a suitable habitat for four young adult astronauts to survive on the surface of Mars for 3 months.

You will be provided with:

  • Oxygen for 30 days (1 month)
  • Water for 30 days
  • A menu of protein-rich space meals to supplement food production
  • Nutritional requirements for colonists
  • A menu of seeds to choose from
  • Building materials to create an enclosed habitat
  • Space-gear for short exposure
  • Materials for circulation pump (with motor)
  • Heating unit for habitat

If you have a request for additional materials, check with your mission commander (teacher).  Space aboard ship is limited! 

Over the course of a semester, we covered the basics of earth -v- mars atmosphere and geology as it applies to what plants require to live. Next, we conducted labs to better understand what happens to CO2 and O2 levels in living organisms, ultimately leading to conceptual understanding of photosynthesis. Since my students would be creating a biosphere, they also had to build their understanding of matter and energy, particularly as it applied to cellular respiration. Through various labs and molecular modeling, my students built a solid biology background from which to build a 3D Biosphere model.

The requirements for the biosphere project tasked students with explaining in detail how they would create a sustainable environment–covering both physical and physiological requirements–for the astronauts in a Martian environment.

Mars Biosphere Project Requirements:

  • Schematic or diagram of your Martian Biosphere
  • A sample diet for one person for one day, balanced with appropriate amounts of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and other nutrients
  • Number & type of plants, source of water & nutrients for plants
  • Explanation of how your Biosphere will be able to support 4 people for at least 90 days

A majority of my students’ groups chose to work in Minecraft, finding their own familiarity with Minecraft made it easy to create and collaborate with their group to build a model biosphere. One group decided to work in Paint 3D for the biosphere model and were pleasantly surprised by the ease of the app for creating their 3D world. Occasionally students had class time to work on their 3D biosphere designs and overhearing their working conversations was awesome. Students would discuss the validity of the spaces they were creating, whether there was sufficient gas exchange for CO2 and O2, and if their biosphere could support the necessary farming to provide the nutrients per their scheduled astronaut diet. They also discussed, or more aptly “vigorously debated,” the aesthetics of their biosphere design. Building in 3D provided the authentic venue to discuss the science underneath the project learning and that made this biology teacher smile.

Providing opportunities to learn framed within an authentic learning project is critical to asking students to go behind the route memorization. The Mars Biosphere Project had a variety of variables to solve and students had to provide evidence that they understood the biology to sustain the astronauts for 3 months on Mars. Utilizing Minecraft (or Paint3D) for creating a 3D model of the biosphere gave an opportunity for essential conversations to better understand the biology concepts.


Click for Mars Biosphere – Minecraft Student Tour

The best part, from a teaching perspective, is teachers don’t necessarily need to be Minecraft experts to provide an opportunity for students to use their expertise in Minecraft to showcase their learning.

Over the course of the Mars Biosphere Project, my students used the following tools and applications;


Reflecting on NCCE 2018 

Review Notes from NCCE 2018 – Presenter & Attendee

I was fortunate to be both a presenter and attendee at this year’s Northwest Council of Computer Education, a regional conference focused on educational technology, held in Seattle.

I presented three sessions, all on the first day, which ultimately turned out to be good. I had a chance to get my presenter nerves out and over with on the first day, and then I could enjoy the rest of the conference as an attendee. My sessions focused on classroom technology associated with Office 365, connecting the classroom to enhance student learning. It is easy to present on technology that you use every day in your classroom, which is precisely the point – not everyone does this. I was pleased every session appeared to either inspire the educators in the room or to answer their questions. The questions they asked were specific to their needs and we had answers. Just as it is for me, I am ever so appreciative of a presenter’s genuine understanding of the technology that works, as well as what doesn’t work, in a classroom of active student learners. If you’re interested in my NCCE 2018 sessions, please see the links below:

  • Connected Classroom – Foster Student Learning with Teams, OneNote, and Flipgrid

  • OneNote Avengers Panel Discussion (team presentation)

  • Yikes! We’re 1:1 – Now What? Maximizing student learning with 1:1 devices in your classroom (co-presented)

What did I learn as an attendee?

Reflecting on my recent attendance at NCCE, I could answer a few essential questions. What did I learn? What were the noteworthy moments? Who were the people who made an impact? I learned a great deal about a variety of educational technology tools, apps, and processes. A few of my highlights were the following:

  • Art of Arduino – These little devices are super cool, providing students a platform to link physical devices and to write basic instructional coding to create “something” that will spin, count, move, or tell directions. The computational thinking combined with physical components is both delightful and necessary for developing problem solving skills.


    Setting up a Spinner, Notes on Surface

  • Computational Thinking & Digital Learners – provides a wealth of resources to help teachers bring coding and computational thinking into their classrooms. Teachers don’t have be “computer science” teachers to introduce the basics of coding to students. Often it is restructuring teacher’s own thinking to incorporate computational thinking lessons for students.
  • Microsoft Teams (from the Microsoft side of things) – As a Teams user, it was interesting to ask questions and listen to how the backend of Teams is being supported for schools. Microsoft is listening to educators’ questions and their needs to make Teams a one-stop communication hub for the classroom.
  • Tech Tools & Rethinking Response Modes – A good reminder that one way to increase student engagement is to step outside of the norm of “question and response” discussion in the classroom. Using technology to capture students’ attention and providing a venue to explore allows students to showcase their understanding. This session highlighted using Google Maps, Screencast-o-matic, and Canva to locate, broadcast, and produce infographics.
  • Wild Goose Chase – Super fun scavenger hunt app provides a plethora of potential buy-in for student, parent, and school community engagement, learning and collaboration. The presenters shared how they built lessons for a school tech night to a field trip to the zoo.
  • Web Accessibility – Truly an eye-opening introduction to making any classwork, lessons, and newsletters we share on the web accessible to all. There are a variety of tools to check accessibility, which when used promotes an understanding of the importance of utilizing format and text. There is so much to learn regarding accessibility but this introduction built an awareness is a great start.
  • ISTE standards for Administrators – The ISTE standards for educators were published last year and now is the next round of feedback before publishing for education leaders. The rationale for Administrator ISTE standards is to promote a common framework for school leaders to ensure accessibility of technology for all, thus enhancing the learning for all. The process is ongoing and the discussions are important work.
  • Micro:bit & MakeCode – Once again, fun with coding and building. Micro:bits are similar to Arduinos, they are small microprocessor devices that can be programmed to do just about anything (well, almost anything). The devices can be programmed to play music, count, turn on a spinner, motor, or determine compass directions. Microsoft MakeCode is the app that can be used with both Micro:bit and Arduinos to write code to instruct the device to do what you want it to do. Easy to use, fun to build.
  • Power BI – An awesome introduction to the power of visualizing data. The ability to use Office 365 to survey with Microsoft Forms, analyze responses via Excel, and then move data to a visual form was powerfully informative. The highlighted school use case, where a music teacher used Power BI for tracking instrument checkout all the way through to fostering peer evaluation of performances, was outstanding. There is a learning curve for Power BI, but it appears to be worth the investment for the wealth of data visualization it can produce.

Noteworthy Moments – Conference Keynotes

  • Toni Townes-Whitney, Microsoft Executive, spoke of the transformative mind-shift that is required for our future world. A smart, funny and engaging speaker, she shared her background from a family of educators and so naturally stated there will be, “a quiz on quantum computing” at the end of her keynote. Describing technology on a continuum of mixed reality, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing illustrated that students today need to apply data, not just know facts. Our students, at the end of their schooling, need the ability to be agile, seeing new ways to make sense and understanding from their learning. This mind shift moves away from old the pedagogy of “know it all” to facilitating “what can we apply” or use in the classroom, or ultimately in the world.

    NCCE TTW Keynote

    Toni Townes-Whitney

  • Dan Rather, former CBS News Anchor, shared his own top ten list of leaders, observations from his years of reporting the news. A rambling speech of history, anecdotes, and quotes, both funny and poignant, to apply as a teacher in today’s classroom. He shared his magic words “if it is to be then it is up to me” meaning keeping the responsibility where it needs to be. He also spoke of humility, gratitude, and heart, that we must listen by heart and the best teachers/leaders are excellent listeners.

    NCCE DR Keynote

    Dan Rather

Who were the people who made an impact? Many people, but mainly my MIEExpert network family. I was fortunate to reconnect with familiar and meet new MIEs from around the country. Educators who present and attend an ed-tech conference have a passion to move our classrooms forward, to inspire innovative thinking and problem solving. The people who make an impact for me are those who share how and what they do for their students. Their sharing helps me make an impact for my students.

MIE Expert Summit in Redmond

Recently, I had the privilege to participate in a regional MIE Expert and Showcase School Leader Summit in Redmond, WA (on the Microsoft Campus). I was reminded, once again, how cool it is to be part of a such an amazing network of educator friends who have a passion for education, technology, and innovative thinking. This educator network provides me the feeling that I have known my fellow MIE Experts for a multitude of years, when in fact sometimes we’ve only met a summer ago at a conference. This network stays in touch digitally, over Twitter, Facebook, as well as messaging apps. The digital conversations range from technical issues for the best ed-tech apps, laptop hardware questions, planning for an upcoming conference session, and just fun conversations about the amount of snow fall in their area. Although we may be geographically apart, we are close as a collective innovative educator mindset as we can be. The greetings and hugs are genuine and authentic and there is never a “dumb” question that can’t be asked and answered.


Getting settled at MIE Summit

This year’s summit had a couple recurring themes, first a reminder this is a reinvigorating group, a group that can provide an essential opportunity to refresh and nurture ourselves in our fast-paced world. This reminder to slow down and take time when we need to is notable, as educators, we are often on the innovative cutting edge, we need to be mindful of “champion burn-out.” The opportunity to laugh and have camaraderie goes a long way to support the work we do in and outside of the classroom. It is a two-way street, we need the network to reduce stress, and the network needs us for our ideas and inspiration for our best student learning.

MIE Summit Group

MIE Summit in Redmond

The other theme, of course, was educational innovation. As a group of tech-geeky teachers, we thrive on seeing and learning about how best to encourage and support our students with computational thinking to understanding concepts contain within the sustainable development goals. We played with Arduinos and Microsoft’s MakeCode to create a LED-blinking circuit playground that followed our coded instructions. It was fun creating the code and seeing our creations literally come to light. We also had laughed and geeked out with paper, glitter, ribbons and stickers as we created a coded paint-stick wand that blinked on command.

MIE Summit i2e

Showing off our MakeCode LED Wands

We also spent time discussing educational content, more aptly a hashtag #SDG, known as Sustainable Development Goals. We divided up into small teams and competed in an OneNote EDU Breakout. We systematically figured out a series of puzzles in OneNote, unlocking section by section, to learn the how and the why sustainable development goals are important. I would like to say we were first in breaking out, but second place is a still a worthy silver medal. The ability to be the learner, communicating and collaborating as a team, to collectively finding the solution is a fantastic experience, something we all strive to create for our students.

SDG puzzle

Putting the pieces together for EDU Breakout

Lastly, we wrapped up our summit learning with a presentation on new tools for accessibility – once again, poof, mind blown! The technology is rapidly providing the avenues to connect our students’, families’, and our schools’ worlds closer together. As we were shown how to utilize these learning tools that translate, dictate, as well as an immersive reader, our conversations quickly picked up pace about implementing into our classrooms. As the conversations increased, so did our questions about what’s next and how quickly will everyone have access, to which we were greeted with smiles and a request for patience.

I feel lucky to be a part of such an amazing network of friends, so glad to have the opportunity to have fun and grow as an educator. I look forward to the next time we gather.

Yellowstone Virtual Field Trip with Skype

This fall my 7th grade students have been studying planet science, specifically geology and plate motion. We have discussed how the channels on Mars were formed, did they form from water or lava? As our studies continue, we’re investigating geology on Earth, thinking about the connections between fossils, earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate motion.

Yellowstone Ranger Brian

Yellowstone Ranger Brian was awesome!

Last week we had the opportunity to chat via Skype with Yellowstone Park Rangers about the geology of our first national park. My three 7th grade earth science classes were fortunate enough to chat with and learn from a different Yellowstone Ranger for each class. During our chats my students took digital ink notes in OneNote, focusing on important points the Rangers talked about regarding Yellowstone’s history, geology, wildlife, and ecology. Sometimes it is easy to forget how effortlessly technology can bring our world closer. Each Ranger talked to just us, our chat was not a prerecorded video, and were essentially our own personal tour guides for the Park. They shared how the geology and ecology of Yellowstone are interconnected and we learned how the wolves in Yellowstone help to maintain the ecological balance of wildlife and plant life throughout the seasons. We discovered that Yellowstone is really a very large volcano and that geothermal vents provide the evidence of the magma chamber underneath. My students asked questions, lots of questions, and our Rangers answered each and every one.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I am reminded how thankful I am for our classroom technology, my students who want to learn, our Ranger tour guides who share their knowledge, and the forward-thinking visionaries who preserved the treasure of Yellowstone as a national park. My gratitude is plentiful.

As a teacher, I am delighted to share how easy it was to set up our Virtual Field Trip through Skype in the Classroom using the Microsoft Educator Community. I requested three sessions and the Rangers very quickly emailed to confirm times and asked me the desired focus of our chats. I am looking forward to future Skypes in the Classroom; I have already requested chats with other scientists and we have been invited to a “Mystery Skype” with students in Asia. I can’t wait for my students to learn with and from others all over the world.

Mobile Skype Station

A mobile Skype station makes it easy