(TNS) -- Students in rural Maine soon will visit a pixelated 3-D world so researchers can study whether it builds their interest in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2 million research grant to explore how , one of the most popular video games ever released, could influence children’s future career paths relating to STEM. That research will happen over the next three years.

“The use of computer games as a mechanism for teaching computer science concepts while also improving the effectiveness of the core curriculum is incredibly exciting,” said Bruce Segee, the University of Maine professor leading the research project. “We believe that we will see an improvement in student learning across multiple areas.”

Minecraft is an independently developed, pixelated open-world game in which the player mines blocks of materials used to craft items and build structures. 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.

A vast community of gamers has used the game to create giant structures, statues and machines, block by block, and share them with other Minecraft fanatics online.

Segee will work with co-principal investigators Craig Mason, a UMaine education professor, and Stephen Foster, CEO of ThoughtSTEM, a San Diego-based computer science education organization. The group will craft a curriculum for students in fifth through eighth grade, who will use LearnToMod, a browser-based software add-on used with Minecraft to teach players the basics of programming.

Segee did not return a message Monday asking which schools might be involved in the study.

Related studies are happening across the country in other rural and urban school districts. Researchers also are exploring what role family income levels, demographics and other factors play in STEM interest level when paired with gaming.

Video games have a long history in the classroom. In 1971, a group of Minnesota college seniors looking for a way to teach eighth-graders about the westward expansion of the United States developed a game that became Oregon Trail. The game has been updated over the years and has been played on classroom computers for decades. It has sold more than 65 million copies after 10 iterations.

Few large-scale studies have explored whether games have any strong effects on student performance or development, but games can play a key role for students who struggle to be engaged with traditional lessons.

James Paul Gee, an Arizona State University professor and researcher, has done a lot of writing about the effect games can have on classroom learning.

“Games are good for learning, but not if they are not first and foremost good games,” Gee wrote in a recent blog entry.

Good games, Gee says, teach “life-enhancing things, academic or not.” He includes Minecraft in a list of 22 games that he says meet that qualification.

“No good tool should be left behind, and no one should claim one tool does everything,” Gee added.

©2015 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.