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Students experience Donn Fendler’s saga lost on Katahdin through ‘Minecraft’

Posted May 26, 2016, at 5:15 p.m.

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ORONO, Maine — Donn Fendler, who survived nine days lost in the wilderness around Mount Katahdin as a boy, recounted his journey Thursday through a video game.

About 900 middle and high school students from across the state descended on the University of Maine for the 13th Maine Learning Technology Initiative Student Conference.

This year’s conference, which aims to help students and teachers discover new ways to learn and create on their school-issued laptops and tablets, focused largely on the world of “Minecraft.”

“Minecraft” is an independently developed, pixelated open-world game in which the player mines blocks of materials used to craft items, build structures, and create and sculpt environments. Software giant Microsoft purchased the game from its developer a year ago for $2.5 billion. Since “Minecraft’s” release in 2009, it has sold more than 60 million copies across multiple platforms and consoles. It’s one of the most popular video games ever released,

Last year, the National Science Foundation awarded a $2 million research grant to explore how “ Minecraft” could influence children’s future career paths relating to STEM. That research will happen over three years.

Maine Learning Technology Initiative Director Mike Muir said that study inspired the theme of this year’s event.

“They’re not just sitting here listening, they’re participating and making this happen,” Muir said of the students.

On a large projection screen on the Collins Center for the Arts stage, students watched as a pixelated version of Fendler developed in “Minecraft” climbed a digital version of Katahdin, got lost in a virtual storm, and started his journey back down the mountain in hopes of finding help.

Students followed Fendler’s travels, through all nine days he spent lost, from his battles against persistent insects, to his encounter with a bear, to losing his pants and scavenging abandoned cabins for supplies.

At each major point in the journey, Doug Snow, senior program manager for Apple Education and moderator for the event, asked students to create a drawing using their devices. Those drawings appeared instantly in the video game for all their peers, and Fendler himself, to see in real time.

“I knew I was square-headed, but nothing like that,” Fendler joked of his appearance in the pixel-based game.

Fendler, 89, was joined onstage by children’s author Lynn Plourde and artist Ben Bishop, who created “Lost Trail,” a graphic novel based on Fendler’s story. The tale also was recounted in “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” a book that is read by most of the state’s students.

At the close of the conference, a dozen students received $1,000 scholarships — 10 to UMaine and two to Husson University, which also was involved in the event.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

 

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