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Using Minecraft to teach science


Could a popular computer game have greater success in teaching science than more traditional methods of education do?

That’s a question a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas have looked in to.

Without any classroom instruction, the team assessed how a modified version of Minecraft would fare in teaching chemistry to 39 college students who were taking a variety of subjects.

Dr Walter Voit led the team that created Polycraft World an adaptation or mod for Minecraft that allows players to incorporate the properties of chemical elements and compounds into game activities. Using the mod and instructions provided on a Wiki website, 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.

“Our goal was to demonstrate the various advantages of presenting educational content in a gaming format,” said 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.”

Some of the Polycraft World gamers became surprisingly proficient in processes for which they had no prior instruction, Voit said.

“We’ve had complete non-chemists build factories to build polyether ether ketones, which are crazy hard to synthesize,” he said. “The demands of the one-hour-a-week class were limited, yet some students went all-out, consuming all this content we put in.”

Dr Ron Smaldone, an assistant professor of chemistry, joined the project to give the mod its accuracy as a chemistry teaching tool.

He said: “We’re taking skills Minecraft gamers already have – building and assembling things – and applying them to scientific principles we’ve programmed.”

Voit and Smaldone see Polycraft World as an early step on the road to a new format for learning without classroom instruction.

Voit’s plans for the next version of it will take it beyond teaching chemistry. Some of the most ambitious objectives are in the field of economics.

“We’ve worked with several economists, and are developing a monetary system,” Voit said. “There will be governments and companies you can form. A government can mint and distribute currency, then accumulate goods to prop up that currency. We’ll see teams of people learning how to start companies or countries, how to control supply and demand, and how to sustain an economy.

“Learning about micro- and macroeconomics by actually doing it can impart a much richer understanding of what monetary policy looks like and why.”

Smaldone added: “No one else is doing this to this level. That’s why I think we’ve gotten traction. I think we have a chance to make an impact, even if only demonstrating how powerful it is to infiltrate a game with real, serious content. That’s a proof of concept that so far, at least in chemistry, no one has done.”


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