4 mins read 14 Jul 2021

When worlds collide - Mars Base design meets Minecraft for kids

Over the last few years the virtual block-building game Minecraft has been used for many global education programs, as a powerful tool that allows young people to build and scale ideas into functioning systems. Jonathan Nalder walks us through how the platform is being used by young people to build rovers on Mars and grow vegetation on the red planet.

Turning a 2D sketch into 3D with Minecraft. Credit: J. Nalder (supplied).

If you asked someone to design a Mars base in under 45 mins, the reaction might be one of incredulity and scepticism. And yet, 200 students in recent workshops on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland have been doing just that - all thanks to the rapid prototyping made possible by Minecraft’s creative mode.

While it has been around as a collaborative building environment for over 10 years, Minecraft is still growing in popularity as a game (survival mode) and as a tool for schools and students to use to showcase designs. Even in the last year owner, Microsoft has announced that monthly user numbers have grown by 30% to 140 million. 

Part of this popularity comes from the interface which can scale from the simplicity of just placing blocks, up to incredibly complex creations that have earned Minecraft its reputation as the digital version of Lego.

With the number of kids out there who now have access to a copy, Australian STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) provider STEM Punks has spent 2021 providing ways for them to engage with focused problem-solving classes that also teach students about Mars and what life there might be like.

Mars rover design with Minecraft. Credit: J. Nalder (supplied).

During these classes, students hear from space habitat experts such as Dr Michaela Musilova, Director at Hi-SEAS Analog Moon and Mars base (used by NASA among others for Astronaut training and research) and learn about the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station, which article author and STEM Punks teacher Jonathan Nalder is scheduled to go on Mission at in 2022.

Next students plan and sketch a design for a base to meet the challenge question of ‘what would a Mars base need so humans can be happy living away from home?’. It’s after this process that they turn to Minecraft to rapidly prototype and turn their 2D ideas into 3D bases - all within the 45 min lesson time. Some even add automatic airlock doors and moving cart transports as well as light up solar panels - all depending on what they decide humans on Mars will need.

In line with how learning has evolved across the COVID-19 era, an extended, on-demand version of this class is also being taken by students online. With recent lockdowns and school holidays happening, it’s available here with the coupon code ‘HOLIDAYS’ giving 25% off so even more kids can show off their unique space base design ideas.

Mars Greenhouse designs with grower lamps in place in Minecraft. Credit: J. Nalder (supplied).


Through over 20 years in Education, Jonathan (MEd, BA/ BEd) has seen how life-long learning, digital tools (STEAM, AR/VR, mobile) & ‘spacethinking’ transform lives. Now, as founder of the First Kids on Mars, Space Futures Coach for STEM Punks, an Advance Queensland Digital Champion, SpaceNation activity designer, HundrEd Advisor (Finland) & CoSpaces AR/VR Ambassador, he actively helps leaders & learners shift thinking to embrace the coming fully digital, and ‘off-Earth’ era as their most human selves via tools developed for STEM Punks and the Future Ready Framework (FutureWe.org/framework). 

Recently Jonathan’s work was recognised as part of STEM Punks receiving the global Big Innovation Award 2021. He also presented at the Space Habitat Event in late 2020 with HI-SEAS Commander Dr Michaela Musilova, spoke at the world’s largest Education conference ISTE online about a Dark Skies project, and was recognised by CleverBooks as a Top 50 innovator with Augmented Reality.