Abstract Details

Sandbox Learning: Using Minecraft To Trigger Interest In STEM For Tweens

Problem Addressed


Interest development is a topic that has fascinated and puzzled educators since the 20th century, however the research on interest is still relatively sparse. As modern life dictates for the incorporation of technology into our daily lives, it is essential to understand how interest develops within these technology-enhanced environments. In my dissertation, the sandbox game Minecraft is used as a platform to test whether interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) can be triggered within a digital learning environment for adolescent learners. This study contributes to our foundational understanding of how interest functions within a digital learning environment.

Key Research Questions


The use of videogames to trigger interest in STEM topics for adolescents is one underutilized approach investigating the question of how to cultivate the momentary, fleeting presence of interest (situational) to develop into the more stable and enduring form of interest (individual). The primary goal of this dissertation is to unpack the extent to which a science-focused game intervention can impact STEM interest in adolescents. More formally, the research questions posed are:

  • RQ1: To what extent does a digital sandbox game intervention that enables freedom of choice and peer-to-peer interactions trigger interest in STEM?

  • RQ2: What is the influence of prior gameplay experience on changes in STEM interest when using a game-based science learning intervention?

Objectives of the Study


I retroactively examine four case studies – the top and lowest performers – of interest in STEM and game mastery prior to a game-based science intervention. Multiple sources of evidence were used to triangulate the cases presented: pre- and post-test STEM interest surveys, interviews, scored astronomy scores, definitions for habitability, self-reported prior experience with playing Minecraft, and a delayed follow-up survey.

Methodological Approach


Select cases were chosen from the 2018 and 2020 Minecraft science summer camp that took place at a youth center in a midsized college town in the American Midwest. For the purposes of this dissertation, interest triggering occurs when the learner shows a willingness to reengage, express positive affect, view a subject as having value, reflect about the learning content, or connecting content based on prior knowledge or experience. Instances of STEM-related interest triggering are identified through interviews and fieldnotes, quantified and categorized by types interest triggers, followed by specific examples of each type of interest triggering episode.

The results of this study suggest that a game-based science intervention can effectively trigger interest in STEM, even for those who expressed low interest in STEM prior to the intervention. A sandbox game that allows for peer-to-peer engagements and freedom of choice works well to trigger interest in cases of high Minecraft mastery prior to the intervention, and there were mixed results for those with low Minecraft mastery. Outcomes from this study can be used to study interest triggering in other domains and out-of-school learning contexts and serve as foundation for those examining interest development within digital learning environments.

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