Millions of kids spend time digging holes in the virtual world of Minecraft—a hugely popular online video game. In Minecraft, players dig up 3-D blocks that they can use to create just about anything, like houses or machines. That gave Mark Lorch, a chemistry professor at the University of Hull in England, an idea. He decided to use Minecraft to build molecules.
Molecules are combinations of two or more atoms (the smallest units of elements) that are bonded together. Lorch named his molecule-filled Minecraft world MolCraft. It allows anyone to explore the chemical structure of molecules found in the human body and discover more about these building blocks of life.
People have already used Minecraft to teach about a wide range of subjects, from space to famous historical sites. Lorch wanted to do the same to help young people learn about biochemistry—the science of chemical processes that occur within living organisms.
Lorch asked some of his university students to integrate chemical structures into Minecraft. To visualize molecules, chemists use ball-and-stick models, where the balls represent atoms and the sticks represent the bonds that hold them together. Lorch’s students built MolCraft’s molecules using this same method.
“They generated this world that was populated with all these structures and then incorporated a scavenger hunt dotted around the world with treasure chests,” Lorch recently told the online magazine Motherboard.
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When players start up MolCraft, they find themselves in a large hall with different doors. Each door leads to a room that contains 3-D models of specific molecules.
One room, for example, contains glycine, a type of amino acid—a compound containing carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), and nitrogen (N). Glycine is used to build proteins, which the body needs to function. Once players encounter the molecule, they can navigate around it to see what it looks like from different angles and get an up-close view of its different parts.