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Instead of learning the principles of materials science in a traditional lecture-based setting, students in Assistant Professor B. Reeja Jayan’s upper-level engineering course mastered their principles in a game-based setting while playing Minecraft, a computer game in which users build worlds out of virtual blocks.

In her special topics course called Materials and Their Processing for Mechanical Engineers, Jayan “fills in the gaps” for mechanical engineering students who have very little knowledge about materials science.

“Materials science is typically an area that mechanical engineers are not fully exposed to,” says Jayan. “This new course teaches students how materials have specific internal arrangements of atoms and how processing techniques can change this structure and lead to differences in properties like mechanical behavior and strength.”

Minecraft has enabled me to understand materials science in a very tangible way.

Genevieve Parker, Undergraduate student, Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

To appreciate mechanical science, the design of materials, and different advanced manufacturing processes, Jayan says that mechanical engineers must understand how the processing of materials influences atomic structures and their resulting properties. Since traditional lab courses are often difficult to organize (due to safety hazards, lack of equipment, or lack of staff), Jayan utilized a game-based teaching methodology to ensure that her students would still benefit from a hands-on learning environment.

“When you make materials, it’s like building things,” says Jayan. “Minecraft is the maker’s game. You can build anything. There are specific modules in the game that help students appreciate the properties of the materials they are building with. I was trying to use this culture of building to help students visualize ideas and think about what it was that they were building and how they would do it in a real-world scenario.”

Minecraft appeals to a wide audience because players can customize their own playing experience in an open world, “sandbox” environment. Unlike a game that is created in a linear fashion (where players move neatly from one checkpoint to the next), Minecraft encourages players to wander, explore and interact with its environment, using tools and materials to modify and rearrange their surroundings. In Minecraft, players creatively solve problems they encounter when building their own structures.

At the end of the semester, students complete a final project in Minecraft by creating their own individual games and rooms within the classroom server. Students are challenged to produce unique projects that teach the principles of materials science in an interactive way. Last semester, several students created games that required players to build materials using the best material processing and synthesis techniques, while other students created museums of crystal structures and replicas of steelmaking factories. By completing these highly technical projects, students have an opportunity to learn the underlying principles of the materials science field.

“Minecraft has enabled me to understand materials science in a very tangible way” says MechE junior Genevieve Parker. “I loved the ability to walk around a model of a crystal structure and visualize content in three dimensions. You can't beat the interactivity that comes with a Minecraft classroom. The ability to build and be creative on homework assignments and our project motivated me to learn and kept me engaged as I did my work.”

Although some high school teachers have started using Minecraft in their own classrooms, few college professors have incorporated the game into their own curriculum.

“There are really no other examples of Minecraft being used at the university level other than the University of Texas-Dallas and CMU,” says Jayan. “The main difference with us is that it’s the first time the game has ever been integrated into an engineering course full-fledged. That’s a big deal because nobody else has done that.”