Carnegie Mellon University

Genevieve Parker used Minecraft to create a hexagonal crystal structure of Zinc Oxide, which is the white pigment in sunscreen.

July 26, 2017

Computer Game a Building Block for Engineers

By Samantha Jamison

Lisa Kulick
  • College of Engineering
  • 412-268-5444

Carnegie Mellon University engineering students are using the building blocks in a popular computer game to make materials.

"When you make materials, it's like building things," said B. Reeja Jayan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "Minecraft is the maker's game. You can build anything."

In her special topics course "Materials and Their Processing for Mechanical Engineers," Jayan uses Minecraft game modules to help upper-level undergraduate students appreciate the properties of building materials. Jayan said this is the first time the game has been fully integrated into a university-level engineering course, which was first offered last spring.

Minecraft appeals to a wide audience because players can customize their playing experience. Unlike games in which players move neatly from one checkpoint to the next, Minecraft encourages players to wander, explore and interact with the environment, using tools and materials to modify and rearrange their surroundings. The game lets players creatively solve problems they encounter when building structures.

"Minecraft is the maker's game. You can build anything."
— B. Reeja Jayan

"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," Jayan said. "This 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."

Students who took the course completed a final project in Minecraft by creating games and rooms in the classroom server. They were challenged to produce projects to teach the principles of materials science in an interactive way. Several students created games that required players to build materials using the best processing and synthesis techniques, while other students created museums of crystal structures and replicas of steel-making factories. By completing these highly technical projects, Jayan said students learned the underlying principles of the materials science field.

"Minecraft has enabled me to understand materials science in a very tangible way," said Genevieve Parker, a junior in mechanical engineering. "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."