FEB 15, 2017 11:53 AM PST

Learning Chemistry by Building, with Minecraft

WRITTEN BY: Jennifer Ellis

What if going to chemistry class meant sitting down at your computer to play Minecraft? A team from the University of Texas at Dallas is working to prove that this might be the next level in education.

The team investigated and tested whether learning applicable chemistry concepts by experiencing and working with them in a game is a more effective educational tool than traditional methods of lecture and test. The Texas team consists of a materials science professor, two chemists, and a game design expert. They asked 39 college students from diverse majors and with no chemistry background to play an adapted version of Minecraft to learn chemistry, without the aid of a standard chemistry class. The study is published in the current issue of Nature Chemistry.

An example of a chemical used in the game, synthesis of p-phenylenediamine (a component of kevlar)

The new version of the popular Minecraft video game was dubbed “Polycraft World.” It incorporates usable chemistry into the game, where players can create and build chemical compounds and polymers to help them in their survival. With the help of extra instruction from a Wiki website connected to the game, players can harvest and process natural rubber to make wheels, or convert crude oil into a jetpack using distillation, chemical synthesis and manufacturing processes.

By bringing the level of play down to the basic chemical elements, students have to create their own supplies even before building out of them. Some students became so proficient at the game that they were building factories to create polyether ether ketones, which are very difficult to synthesize.

“Our goal was to demonstrate the various advantages of presenting educational content in a gaming format,” said Walter Voit, a materials science and engineering professor in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. “An immersive, cooperative experience like that of ‘Polycraft World’ may represent the future of education.”

In order to create a video game that contains a high level of chemistry base knowledge, the team had to choose increasingly complex chemical compounds and map out assembly instructions for each. They were able to integrate over 2,000 methods for building more than 100 different polymers using a vast array of chemicals into the game.

The game has been a successful learning tool for the test group, even without classroom instruction. The team plans to expand their testing on a larger group of students and expects to see similar results. The concept of a video game as a teaching tool can of course be expanded to other areas besides chemistry as well. Lead author Voit has his eye on economics as the next challenge in video game creation.

“It’s quite difficult to make a good video game, much less the rare good game that is also educational,” says Dr. Monica Evans, associate dean for graduate programs and associate professor in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication and a co-author of the paper. “The ingenuity of the ‘Polycraft’ team is that they've harnessed the global popularity of an existing game, ‘Minecraft,’ and transformed it into something that is explicitly educational with a university-level subject.”

Sources: UT Dallas News, Nature Chemistry

About the Author
  • I love all things science and am passionate about bringing science to the public through writing. With an M.S. in Genetics and experience in cancer research, marketing and technical writing, it is a pleasure to share the latest trends and findings in science on LabRoots.
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