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Microsoft is upping its STEM game by introducing new chemistry and computer science options for Minecraft: Education Edition. Plus, the tech giant is adding more “mixed reality” products and offers for educators, including an academic HoloLens discount, to its edtech mix.

All of this news (and more) is being rolled out by Microsoft in advance of the largest education technology trade show in the world, Bett, which begins Wednesday in London.

Minecraft may be the biggest news for its legions of K-12 teacher and student fans. Starting in early February, a free Chemistry Update will be available to licensed users. The update uses game-based learning to introduce chemistry concepts.

Jay Paulus, senior director of Windows education marketing, said, “The chemistry add-in actually adds some new kinds of components to Minecraft” including a full periodic table and a “compounding table” which is similar to Minecraft’s crafting table. Students can move from building compounds to hands-on understanding of more difficult concepts, like stable isotopes.

Building compounds in Minecraft’s new Chemistry Update. (Image: Microsoft)

Minecraft: Education Edition is also getting new Microsoft MakeCode for Minecraft computer science curricula which, similar to learn-to-code packages ScratchX and Tynker, can be used in Minecraft’s Code Builder.

Paulus said the continued emphasis on Minecraft is a key part Microsoft’s overall education strategy in light of interest in STEM education.  “I think it’s super important, especially for those age group of kids for which Minecraft is an excellent hook,” Paulus said. “We’ve got 250 lesson plans online already in Minecraft.”

Another area of edtech emphasis — albeit nascent, more pricey, and skewing toward older students — is virtual reality. Microsoft said starting today, it’s offering academic institutions HoloLens commercial and developer models at a 10 percent discount through the end of May. In addition, Microsoft says curriculum for Windows Mixed Reality and HoloLens headsets will be released by educational publisher Pearson starting in March, and Microsoft has a new mixed reality curriculum partnership with WGBH and NASA’s “Bringing the University of America’s Classrooms” initiative.

Education publisher Pearson envisions HoloLens chemistry. (Image: Microsoft)

Among the many other Microsoft education announcements tied to the Bett event:

  • Office 365. Microsoft says dictation is coming to Office in February so students can write with their voice, and OneNote Class Notebook pages can be locked by teachers after they provide students with feedback (which Microsoft said is the top teacher request).
  • Teacher training. Free teacher training, in-person or virtual, will be available on how to use Microsoft tech in the classroom after schools purchase certain Microsoft 365 Education software licenses, not including the still-free version of Office 365 Education.
  • Classroom devices. Four new sub-$300 Windows 10 devices from Lenovo and JP (the latter better known in international markets), two of them under $200, are being announced at Bett to add to more than 40 different school-friendly devices available for Windows that start at $189.

Paulus said this last is important as Microsoft works to counter Google’s influence in K-12 classrooms. Recent market research has shown that while Windows is relatively strong in other countries, inexpensive Chromebooks with Google’s free G Suite for Education are dominant in the U.S., accounting for more than half of new computing device shipments into schools.

With the latest hardware announcements, Paulus said, “I would say we’re at critical mass now” in countering Google.

And what of Apple, one-time edtech darling? “We’ve added the ability to use some of the tools from mobile in Apple” iOS devices, Paulus said. But despite that nod to Apple, Paulus asserted that, “Schools more and more are choosing the Microsoft platform.”

Previously: Microsoft apps to be embedded into edtech powerhouse PowerSchool’s ‘Unified Classroom’

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