Class Project: Tang Dynasty capital city build with MinecraftEdu

My students and I recently completed a project with MinecraftEdu that I am especially proud of. As a culminating project for our unit on medieval China, we recreated the Tang Dynasty capital city of Chang’an. The Tang Dynasty (7th-10th century) is considered a golden age for Chinese art, literature, and philosophy. It is one focus for 7th grade world history in California.

The capital city of Chang’an, current city of Xi’an, was considered the largest city in the world at the time with over one million residents. It was laid out in a formal grid fashion but was not a perfect rectangle as it was designed to resemble the Big Dipper. I found several illustrations that included a plan for the city.

Chang'an Map

The direct goals for my lesson included:

  • placing students in collaborative build groups,
  • assigning each group of 2-4 a city block upon which they were to build a replica Chinese structure
  • build on background knowledge gained in the previous two weeks and research and write about the lives of citizens living within and just outside the city walls.

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I divided the city blocks amongst my student groups and placed a schematic Chinese pagoda within the walls that I designated as the Emperor’s Palace. I placed several other smaller Chinese styled buildings outside the city walls and away from the build zone so that students could study the architectural features and attempt to incorporate them into their buildings. This is how we began day one.

Chang'an grid, day one

Chang’an grid, day one

I have 145 history students that funnel through my classroom each day. I also teach a game design class that has 30 students in it. I was very unsure of how MinecraftEdu was going to perform over five classes and five days of work. I run MinecraftEdu from my 4-year-old teacher iMac that has 4 GB of RAM. I have a classroom set of three-year old Acer Aspire One netbooks. The are running Ubermix, a free Linux-based OS designed for schools that I highly recommend.

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 12.18.58 PM

I adjusted the video settings on the netbooks and turned off or minimized several taxing settings. My classroom has its own Airport router and my iMac has a static ip issued to it. I’m pretty self-contained and I like it. Despite having older and slower machines, a heavily used network, and a multi-tasking iMac as a server, I did not have a single issue over the six-day course of the activity. We were able to devote every minute of each period collaboratively learning in a virtual world.

The build was so popular that I opened my classroom at lunch and had a packed house each day. Students were experimenting with textures, design options, and colors in an effort to replicate medieval Chinese buildings. We would begin each period with a discussion of topics such as social class and housing, rights and privileges of the upper class, job descriptions, and warfare. We made cultural observations and comparisons with our own and with societies that we previously covered in class.

After five days of building, we shifted to writing about the occupants of our city. Students used Google Docs to write and conduct further research. They generated Chinese names to apply to their building and when they were finished with their paragraphs, having checked spelling and grammar, they went back into Chang’an and placed their information inside a special “info block” unique to MinecraftEdu. They placed the block next to the front entrance to the home, park, or place of business they created and signed their name.

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Our city now has actual residents living in it. The farms have crops and animals and the merchant stalls are ready for business. Points to work on for next year include:

  • making sure all of my students have the time to place their writing in the world they created
  • perhaps do some of the writing before entering the world
  • extend the lesson to include the Mongol invasion of China from the north
  • place Custom NPC’s in the world to act as guides with dialog written by students
  • have students post a screencast tour of their work on their blog.
  • take a crack at the interiors

I am very proud of what my students accomplished with this project in such a short period of time. We finished within my two-week goal and had great fun learning in the process.

Chang’an was created using MinecraftEdu 1.6.4 without mods.

DOWNLOAD the original world (empty city blocks)

DOWNLOAD the completed world (buildings and student generated info blocks)

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27 Comments

  1. Fantastic project! Question (since I am not familiar with MinecraftEdu): Once a city, such as Chang’an, is constructed, can an avatar walk around the streets and explore the city from the ground level? If yes, is it possible to enter and building and explore interiors (assuming they have been built)? Thanks for sharing! and great job!

    • Thanks for checking out my blog Mr. Smith!
      The answer to your question is yes, the world my students created is a place where anyone that downloads it can walk among the buildings and interact with others in the world at the same time. It is also completely modifiable by anyone with MinecraftEdu. I hope other teachers do download it and make it their own or pass it along to students who develop it further to fit into their curriculum.

      As I mentioned in my post, I will extend this lesson next year by adding some interior design requirements for my more advanced students. Right now, the inside of each building is empty. Interiors are a bit difficult to create for anyone new to Minecraft, which most of my students are.

      Thanks again,
      John

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  3. I LOVE this. The history applications for Minecraft are amazing. I am starting a few new social studies experiments using Minecraft in the new year. Your post made it on my game-based learning curated paper! http://paper.li/misterwashburn/1387122457

    • Thanks Mr. Washburn!
      Please keep me updated as to your progress. I have so many ideas for incorporating our history curriculum into Minecraft that I am actively seeking insightful collaborators.

      John

  4. That’s a fantastic project. One of the things I love about simulations, including minecraft, is that it gives kids a purpose to read and write, such as you have demonstrated here. Can you open your city up for tours?

    • Hi Phillip,

      I appreciate your kind words. This was my first large scale Minecraft project and I am very pleased with the outcome. I just added the download links to the original world (empty city blocks) and the “final” world (including student buildings and writing) into the bottom of the post. If you are a MinecraftEdu user, download them and place into your saved worlds folder and you can access them. I do not yet have an external server set-up for this world, but I am working with my IT department to have one up and running by the end of the school year.

      Cheers!

      john

  5. Dear sir,

    This looks fantastic! This is what I want to do! I’ve been looking into starting MinecraftEdu in my classroom, and the main questions I had were about the server. Is the server just like the boos computer that hosts everybody? Do you think I should have it be my laptop or desktop in the classroom? Any help would be appreciated, thanks!

    • Hi Mr Goff,

      I use my “teacher” iMac as a server in my classroom. You’ll want to use the machine that has the most RAM and the faster processor as your classroom server. I generally find that I can run my other apps in the background without any issues, but if I know there will e 30+ students playing at the same time, I make sure all my other apps are closed.

      If you run into slow downs or lag, adjust the video settings on the clients. I used to have students get kicked out frequently, but since I adjusted those settings, I have not had many issues at all.

      Hope this helps! Keep me posted on your progress.

      John

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  12. Hi John,

    This is fantastic work in using Minecraft to demonstrate very clear learning goals! I’ve been using MinecraftEdu for a few months now and love playing alongside the students. The best teaching tool I’ve used in my 20 years of teaching. The number of teachers doing amazing work like yourself make a huge difference in getting more teachers to try out something new. The kids love being in the driver’s seat and working collaboratively. I’m about to try your ancient Chinese village reproduction project with my 6th Grade students. Have you started this year’s version of the build? What do you think about incorporating a Choose Your Own Adventure Story element to the project? Adding the narrative piece to the characters of the village really made your project stand out among MC projects. Being a big story in the classroom fan, I try to help my students construct narratives in many different environments. Last year, the Choose Your Own Adventure Story idea worked well with my students. They researched daily life and government in the earlier dynasties (Shang, Qin, Han) and had to incorporate that into their stories. They used Google Sites to create the stories. But, I think it’s possible to create something similar in MC. What do you think? I only have two sections and 40 total students. Did you use separate worlds for each of your classes or did you have all 145 students working in one world map?

    Thanks immensely for posting the world map. Saves me a tremendous amount of time. Hopefully, I can post something soon that will be of use to you and other teachers.

    Happy New Year!

    Tom

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for the very nice comments! Yes, I completed this year’s version at the end of November and felt that it went really well. The build quality was even better than last year’s group and I thought that the writing component was richer as well.
      I am also a big believer in the power of story-telling in the classroom. I incorporate a great deal of role play in each history unit. We have several costumes and a green screen available for performance tasks. We just finished a MC project that I am writing up now which challenged my students to develop Japanese Tanka poems and then design and build the environment to highlight the poem. They wrote the poem from the perspective of a medieval Japanese citizen.
      Your idea sounds wonderful and it could be successfully implemented in Minecraft. I used one map for the project and all 145 kids worked in it each day. The students really respected each other’s work throughout the process and I had no griefing issues.
      My students begin the year really struggling with writing and my strategy is similar to what you do. I feel the narrative form is a much more enjoyable way to learn history. We are now building on our learning in the first semester and will begin to journal (via student blogs) medieval and renaissance experiences as we travel in a new European world I’m developing.
      I’ll be using the CustomNPCs mod to create a “choose your own adventure” type of learning opportunity. With that mod, I can create non-player characters for my students to interact with that will send them on quests and reward them for completing tasks. Each character can present multiple options for interacting. Similar to what Eric Walker has done with his World of Humanities, but on a much smaller scale.
      I’d love to hear more about what you are doing and, perhaps, we can share ideas and create something that would benefit our students. DM me on Twitter if you are interested. @johnmillerEDU

  13. Thanks, John! I’ll send a few more questions your via Twitter. I’m playing around with the Earth world map in Minecraft and trying to get my students to gain a better understanding of the geography of China and India. Thinking of having them either modifying a random world or finding a seed with Asia-like geography. Know of any? The Earth world map is huge and my MacBook Air can’t handle it, takes 15 minutes just to load it. You mentioned tweeking the video settings on your computer for better performance. Which settings do you adjust? I have an old iMac that needs a new OS. Once that’s up and running I think that might be the classroom dedicated server. I’m also testing out the MCEdu beta server hosting. Maybe that will help things run faster if it’s not based on my computer. Any screen-shots of the buildings you put outside the city walls for students to model the architecture on?

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Tom!
      Glad to help. I did discover a world with, I think, very Asian features. It even includes an Asian temple complex on on island. I used it for my Japanese poetry unit.[Link]

      I also use a texture pack that adds to the Asian feel. [Link]

      To change the video settins go to Options>Video Settings and experiment with lowering the settings for “Graphics” and “Render Distance.” I also turn off full screen, clouds, and brightness on the student devices.

      Here are the buildings I used for models . . .
      [Link]
      [Link]

      Hope this helps!

  14. I have a grant with 130 Minecraft EDU licenses and a server, but I am looking for the best way to “kick things off” as next month my district will go 1:1
    Any advice?

    • Hi Chris,

      That’s fantastic! Depending on how many students you will have connected at one time, I’d suggest a student-centered collaborative build. Many people recreate their schools, but how about getting the students involved in the decision making process and they will likely come up with a fantasy world idea of their own.

      These types of builds have proven to be great ice breakers for me because it plays to everyone’s strengths. Check out and share some of the works of professional build teams like Fyre UK and BlockWorks for inspiration. Best wishes!

      • Thanks for your quick response. I am most curious about your thoughts on the following.
        After we deliver the devices to our students (pilot group) of which I will have 60 6th graders participating. I would like to use Minecraft Edu to recreate civilizations we are currently studying and have students work towards creating screencast to give a “tour of their civilization”.

        Here is my question……
        Do you have like a basics 101 from a teacher perspective of how to get Minecraft installed in a 1:1 setting for each device?
        Many of my students are avid minecrafters, but those that aren’t I believe can learn quickly.

        We get our devices the first week in November and I’d like to find a way to have students engaged inside and outside of class in a virtual civilization………possibly in mid December. I honestly believe many would “dive into it” over Christmas break and focus on learning content to help make their designs historically accurate.

        Thanks again for all of your help

        • Hi Chris!

          Thanks for the question – sorry I’m just getting to it now. I suggest checking out the MinecraftEdu “EduCrew” video playlist. It includes multiple tutorial videos.

          Creating civilizations is a great way to use Minecraft. Setting up a server to allow access from home is a bit different from setting it up for classroom use. It will require that your IT folks open the server to the Internet, which they may not want to do. I know of a few schools that do this, but it is not common. You may want to look into a hosting company to support your goals. The folks at MinecraftEdu offer online hosting currently in Beta right now.

          You will need to make every attempt to prepare your students for working in an environment where “griefing” can happen at anytime. There is no way to restore blocks destroyed by a malicious student, other than restarting the server with an earlier version of your map.

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