GREAT BARRINGTON >> Through the use of a popular video game and a federal grant of nearly $37,000, one local partnership is using virtual insights to help shift students' realities.
Greenagers are just wrapping up a fall semester pilot of a program they call "Crafting the Landscape," which blends the use of MindcraftEdu, the classroom version of the video game Minecraft, with hands-on projects studying and preserving the natural environmental systems of the Berkshires.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced Greenagers as one of four Massachusetts agencies to receive a share of $275,332 allocated to programs that educate the community about climate change and other environmental issues.
Greenagers Executive Director Will Conklin said the organization will use its $36,700 to develop its partnership with Berkshire Co-Op Market, Monument Valley Regional Middle School and Mount Everett Regional School to run the after-school and summer environmental education program.
"Crafting the Landscape" was piloted last summer at Monument Valley, and started this fall at Mount Everett.
Conklin credited the Co-op's education and outreach coordinator, Jenny Schwartz, for coming up with the idea of using Minecraft to engage kids in an environmental conversation. The game allocates building blocks to users, who then create anything they can come up with to protect and help characters involved.
"We focused on how we could get middle school kids in particular out into the community and thinking about how we use natural resources in the community," Conklin said.
So far, about 22 Monument Valley and 10 Mount Everett students have participated in the program. The after-school program meets for two hours twice a week, while the summer program meets for six hours a day, four days a week.
Already, students have visited sites such as Hosta Hill in Housatonic, the Sheffield Land Trust, the Housatonic River Walk and Lake Mansfield in Great Barrington, among other places.
The ultimate project goal over the next two years is to engage 100 youth, who may not otherwise be engaged, to work with area forests, watersheds and agriculture by creating virtual communities and environmental goals in Minecraft and translating those goals into actual service projects in the community. Students are expected to receive nearly 200 hours of program time and contribute about 40 hours of community service each year.
Conklin said having a two-year programming period "will really let us develop and solidify the program." Built into the funding is an evaluation piece, which he said will give the agency evidence on the effectiveness of what it does and teaches.
The program is also supported by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation's Eagle & Janet's Fund of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and other community partners.
The three other Massachusetts organizations receiving the federal environmental education grants are "e" inc., an environmental education center in Boston; the New England Environmental Alliance of Devens and the Massachusetts Audubon Society in Lincoln.
"These organizations are doing just the kind of work that is so important for the future of our environment," said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of the EPA's New England office. "Projects that introduce youth, educators and communities to the problems and the possibilities of environmental protection and climate adaptation are bound to help us develop solutions for a well-protected and healthy New England environment."