In a world of lectures, brochures, and informational slideshows, Ben Chambers is taking a hands-on approach to major exploration: Minecraft.

“We spent a lot of time over the past year talking about how to make it easier for students to learn all about the different engineering major options there are,” said Chambers, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Engineering Education. “Over the first year, many students change their intended engineering discipline. They come in with an idea of what they want to do, and as they learn about the different options, they realize they really want to do something else, or maybe a different major is a better path to what they want.”

Chambers is a member of the Advising: Taking Stock Committee, a team of advisors and engineering faculty members who are looking for new ways to integrate advising and course goals into the first-year program, including exploring how to inform students of the wide variety of majors in the College of Engineering. During one committee meeting, Chambers proposed the use of Minecraft to build a unique college “museum,” the Minecraft Museum of Engineering.

With more than 140 million active users, Minecraft is an infinite world video game launched more than a decade ago. Users can explore, build and create on their own, or join up in collaborative play.

“There’s a bit of literature about Minecraft already,” Chambers said. “It’s being used in a lot of places for virtual learning, to teach programming and design, to do science and engage students. Thinking about understanding a major or discipline or an aspect of it well enough to actually build something, to demonstrate it to other people, I think is a pretty interesting way to have students explore majors and disciplines.”

Over time, the museum will include a wing for each of the 13 majors available in the college, all designed and created by students. Museum visitors can expect a true virtual museum experience, including helpful tour guides. The inaugural department wing, mining and minerals engineering, showcases unique usage of Minecraft materials to illustrate real world principles. One hall depicts longwall mining (a single, continuous mining operation), while yet another highlights job-related equipment, like the rigid frame off-road truck.

Rigid frame off-road truck
Large-scale exhibits through the museum highlight real-world job equipment, like these rigid frame off-road trucks. Screenshots by Angelo Biviano, courtesy of Alyssa Carr.

The walls of the museum went up this past spring, with support from a $10,000 grant from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. The project involved collaboration among mining and minerals engineering department head Kray Luxbacher, and academic advisor Michelle Crotto, and a team of mining and minerals engineering students.

Thomas Huddleston, a senior and team leader, juniors Jack Zelskni and Brennan George, and sophomore Alyssa Carr, crafted the entrance and the mining engineering wing. A larger, cross-college group joined later in the semester to support building.

As the team’s youngest member, Carr, who completed her first year of the mining program this spring, illustrates the need and the potential for the museum.

“I came into engineering undecided and was only able to attend three info sessions in one day,” Carr said. “If I had had something like the Minecraft Museum, I would have been able to look at all of Virginia Tech’s engineering majors to get a better idea of what they were about. I didn’t know mining was an option, and didn’t hear about it until halfway through my first semester.”

Plaque in the Minecraft Museum that describes the Longwall Mining Method
This plaque highlights the method of mining showcased behind it: longwall mining. Throughout the museum, students will explore real applications of the majors. Screenshots by Angelo Biviano, courtesy of Alyssa Carr.

Despite a “messy” start as the team attempted to merge their distinct perspectives into one, cohesive point of view, Carr’s enthusiasm for the museum never wavered.

“I find it exciting to be part of this project because I know it’s going to help incoming freshmen or transfer students — people who are struggling to decide on their major, like I did,” she said. “Plus, it’s fun getting to play a video game while helping someone else.”

Chambers has a “grand vision” for a design competition each year to challenge undergraduates, graduate students, and even alumni to build new exhibits and wing designs. In addition, community members are encouraged to participate in the museum competition and submit their designs for their own wings.

“It’s better to bring in multiple perspectives, different ideas, and existing skills,” he said. “We didn’t want the museum to be static. The students love to do it, and it also sets the stage for continuous development and improvement.”

The beta version of the main museum and first wing is now available to view. Explore the museum and join in the Minecraft experience here.

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