Polycraft World screen grab

Minecraft for education: teaching the next generation of engineers

Image credit: Voit’s Polycraft World, Minecraft, Wired

New versions of the popular video game Minecraft are vying to educate our next generation of engineers.

Frustrated by high costs and the limited reach of lecturing, Professor Walter Voit of the mechanical engineering department in the University of Texas at Dallas spotted an opportunity to hijack a platform already well known among his students. He joined colleagues to develop a modification for Minecraft – a title that has long obsessed gamers of a certain generation – that integrates engineering concepts into the gameplay. In doing so, he has joined a new movement exploring gaming as an academic possibility.

In today’s much-loved Minecraft, players dig holes and collect blocks of raw materials to construct tools, torches, swords, huts and – if you’re feeling a little more creative – rollercoasters, entire cities, maybe even the Starship Enterprise.

Yet Voit’s adaptation, Polycraft World, includes chemical ingredients, so players can, for example, harvest and process natural rubber to make pogo sticks or convert crude oil into a jetpack using distillation, chemical synthesis and manufacturing processes.

“It started out as fun, with three of us just adding basic plastics such as polyethylene and polycarbonate into the game,” says Voit. “Then we realised we could build some really neat items from these kinds of plastics, and it grew organically from there.”

More than three years – and quite a few flame-throwers, freeze-rays and flow regulators – later, Polycraft World comprises more than 2,000 methods for building in excess of 100 polymers from thousands of different chemicals.

Crucially, the ‘mod’ is free, can be used with any valid Minecraft licence, and comes with its own Wikipedia page that cleverly weaves game instructions and recipes with scientific information. Voit reckons the Wiki-page has had some 25 million hits, with more than 2,000 students signing up to access play on the UT Dallas servers.

As he puts it: “We’ve tried to provide a compelling gameplay experience with students learning, without realising they’re learning.”

His approach appears to be working.

A recent study published in Nature Chemistry reveals how a group of 39 students from diverse courses have learned chemistry while playing Polycraft World, without any in-class science instruction. The evidence so far is anecdotal, but as Voit highlights: “We’ve had complete non-chemists construct factories to build polyether ether ketones which are crazy-hard to synthesise.”

Voit and UT Dallas colleagues are not alone in their use of Minecraft to educate. So-called Hullcraft – collaboration between University of Hull and the Hull History Centre – was designed for students to recreate architecture and artefacts from collections at the Hull History Centre using Minecraft.

Pioneer Joel Mills, technology-enhanced learning adviser from the university, and colleagues, initially digitised building plans of English architect Francis Johnson for players to download and recreate within their own version of Minecraft. The project spawned new adaptations including MolCraft, a Minecraft world populated with structures of proteins and chemicals, and Mills reckons HullCraft itself reached more than 10,000 users.

Other mods include IndustrialCraft, based on industrial processes such as nuclear control and advanced power management, as well as Railcraft, which adds new minecarts and tracks to build extensive rail systems. Meanwhile, Buildcraft extends Minecraft with a system of powered machines, tools and pipes to automate tasks and transport liquids, energy and more.

Returning to the classroom, many teachers worldwide are also using an educational version of Minecraft – MinecraftEdu, recently replaced by Minecraft: Education Edition – that covers an eclectic range of topics from gravity and quantum mechanics to pixel art coding, English and US Civil War battlefields.

Voit believes Minecraft’s success stems from its very engaging gameplay. As he points out: “Developers Mojang had spent time and money getting the gameplay right; the rewards and incentives in the game are properly matched to the effort and creativity it takes to play, providing a long-term, compelling experience for users.”

Indeed, following the success of Polycraft World, Voit and colleagues are now working on new worlds, including one revolving around economics. Already developing a monetary system for this, the researchers envision that players will join forces to form organisations and democracies with different rules and requirements.

Medical training is another area Voit hopes to exploit, saying: “We can provide an environment where it’s okay for students to make mistakes and build confidence in their own intellectual abilities. Minecraft is extensible and moddable. We can piggyback on to this to deliver really compelling, educational content.”

Yet there is a lot more to educational gaming than Minecraft. While the Education Edition made it to the finals of this year’s Games for Change Awards, which celebrates games with social impact, it didn’t bag an award. Instead, historical games ‘Walden, a Game’ and ‘Tracking Ida’, as well as kids’ game ‘Dragon box BIG Numbers’, were among the 2017 winners.

Diarmid Campbell, senior teaching associate of games technology at Cambridge University’s department of engineering hopes his latest game ‘Wired’ will join these lofty ranks while luring students into engineering. Designed to teach school-age students the fundamentals of electricity – following researcher observations that many engineering applicants could not answer simple circuit questions – he was hugely inspired by past Dragon box games, Algebra and Elements. As he puts it: “I hope ‘Wired’ will become the most popular game in the world and through it everyone will understand electricity.”

The game centres on a young woman entering a mysterious college and having to solve circuit problems to move from one room to the next. The player navigates the woman across hurdles, also using the mouse and keyboard to wire up machines and flick switches to get electricity flowing.

“Many concepts that would usually be invisible to a student can now be visualised by the player,” says Campbell. “I’ve tried to make this game as interactive and responsive as possible. For example, as you connect wires, electricity flows immediately so you see its effect.”

Campbell is adding the finishing touches to Wired, which is scheduled for release in February 2018. He is adamant that video games can help teach difficult technical subjects. He says games are visual and interactive in real time, provide challenges to structure learning, motivate players, set puzzles in a realistic environment and can be delivered to millions of people, yet allow users to progress at their own pace.

He also highlights that nearly all teenage boys and girls say they play computer games, so he hopes to harness some of this attention into learning engineering skills.

Importantly, however, he believes his games should be fun, which is no mean feat in the world of education. “Unless you are re-skinning an existing game that is already out there, making a fun game is hard,” he says. “But I think I’ve managed to hit on a game mechanic that is both fun and teaches something difficult.”

Professor Voit intends to take educational gaming further by moving from developing Minecraft mods that complement teaching, to designing games that stand alone and can replace entire classroom-based courses.

He envisages core science classes being taught entirely through Polycraft World. “We could set up sophisticated laboratories in Polycraft, where students make, say, explosive materials, and importantly they’re not just reading about it, they’re mixing the chemicals and choosing the correct components,” he says.

“I don’t think [gaming] will ever completely replace the classroom – students need role models for creative thinking and discussion – but games like Polycraft can safely build intellectual skills in a very low-cost and massively scalable way.” 

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