Visiting the Virtual Lab: Student Engineers Simulate Nanofabrication in Minecraft

Reeja Jayan designed a syllabus that incorporates Minecraft in its approach to learning about materials science concepts

While doing homework and playing video games may appear to be at odds, for students in Reeja Jayan ’s upper-level course, Materials and Their Processing for Mechanical Engineers, they are one and the same.

Over the past seven years, Jayan has continued to develop and refine a course syllabus that leverages Minecraft, the popular online game, as a way to give students a closer look at concepts in materials science and engineering with a digital venue to carry out experiments, like chemical vapor deposition (CVD) polymerization, so that they can simultaneously observe the process at an atomic level and learn how to operate such equipment in a lab.

"Minecraft was selected because it’s a game where people build using blocks, and in materials science we build entire objects using atoms. In the game, the blocks become surrogates for the atoms," said Jayan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

"I think this is the very first time such a class existed in higher education - it’s definitely the first engineering course of its kind."

The perks of using Minecraft in the classroom range from matters of convenience to safety. For one thing, many aspects of the class were able to continue as planned during the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to the virtual environment. Also, while access to labs may seem par for the course in an engineering curriculum, theory-based classes like Materials and Their Processing rarely have a lab component, and entering these facilities even once requires substantial preparation. Safety training is paramount, but it often takes several months to learn about handling toxic chemicals and equipment properly. This timeline isn’t practical for a semester-long course. With a virtual lab, students can practice with greater peace of mind because if they make mistakes, the results play out on a computer screen and do not risk physical harm.

Jayan kick-started this project in 2016 with resources from the Donald L. and Rhonda Struminger Teaching Fellowship, which supports innovation in the classroom. When Jayan received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award the following year, she turned her focus to developing virtual lab equipment. The interns who worked on the course were instrumental to this process, including Miguel Brandao, a College of Engineering alumnus , and Takumi Natsume, a College of Fine Arts alumnus who designed the analogous lab. The most important piece of equipment to include was the chemical vapor deposition machine.

"The actual tool sits in the basement of Scott Hall in the clean room housed within the Claire and John Bertucci Nanotechnology Laboratory ," explained Jayan. "It can create layers of atoms into thin films/coatings that you use for electronics and batteries. Students run the virtual machine to apply the chemistry and physics they learn in class."

"The machine takes in a monomer gas, an initiator gas and a carrier gas," said Miguel Brandao, a mechanical engineering alumnus and former head teacher’s assistant for the course. "Once they flow in through the chamber, the machine heats the gasses. This causes the electrons in the initiator molecules to break loose and attach to the monomer molecules, which then diffuse onto the surface of the object we are coating. This causes polymer chains to form."

"It’s a game where people build using blocks, and in materials science we build entire objects using atoms." - Reeja Jayan
CVD is an essential part of manufacturing microchips for computers and mobile phones, and the process was meticulously recreated in Minecraft, allowing students to observe the process step-by-step. Even routine albeit essential rituals of lab protocol, like putting on bunny suits and shoe covers, have been incorporated into the virtual experience.

When students conduct a polymer deposition experiment with the CVD machine, they know if it’s correct based on the color of the result. A properly grown nanolayered coating will turn pink, but if there’s a mistake, it crumbles like feta cheese.

While Jayan’s course is the first at CMU to use Minecraft, there’s less of a learning curve for students considering many of them grew up playing video games. Jayan takes a survey at the beginning of the semester to gauge how comfortable each group is with Minecraft and adjusts her lesson plans accordingly, adding or nixing tutorials based on feedback from students.

After fine-tuning the course over the last few years, Jayan has conducted her first case study (with researchers from the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation ) to support the notion that Minecraft is not only an interesting pedagogical tool - it’s an effective one.

"We looked at student performance in exams," Jayan said of the preliminary research. "We found statistically relevant improvements in student exam scores on topics requiring 3D spatial understanding and/or manipulation that is not possible on a two-dimensional book or paper or chalkboard."

Crystal structures, interatomic bonding, diffusion and property anisotropy are some of the engineering concepts that translate well to a 3D and interactive format. According to the case study, students scored higher on concepts that were covered in a Minecraft module compared with topics that were not taught in Minecraft.

Based on these results, Jayan would like to fortify the Minecraft server and establish a technical support team to accommodate a higher volume of users from across the university. Furthermore, Jayan hopes this data will inspire other schools at CMU to recognize the potential of Minecraft and other virtual tools for application in the classroom.

"This is still very legitimate, serious coursework that is supplemented by Minecraft-not the other way around."

In recognition of this unique approach to teaching foundational engineering concepts, Jayan received the Teaching Innovation Award at CMU’s annual Celebration of Education Awards on April 18.