Saturday, 6 October 2012

Prototyping in MinecraftEdu.

Well I have been building more DNA models in MinecraftEdu, this one has taken me about 3-4 hours and a pretty big brain strain. Worldedit can do many things, but I don't know how to effectively flip things around and move them like you can in real life to make sure things connect the way they should, which is why I need to convince my wife that having one of these printers at home is necessary.

My new prototype has more learning involved in the creation of the model than the previous one, as it relies on students having to put it together. It has 4 different nucleic acids, A, C, T and G and when you try to put the model together, it must follow the base pairing rule, that is A will only link correctly with T and C with G. There are also 3 distinct parts to each nucleic acid, the sugar (orange) the phosphate (blue) and the nitrogenous base (green/purple/yellow/pink). Of course these will all come out the same colour in the print, but I still think visually they will be pretty distinct and we can discuss them as we build our models.

I have sent the 3d file off to the printers to see what issues they are going to come across while printing. My first thought is that they are going to want each nucleic acid individually. Other than that I hope I have made the model simple enough for the printer to print without too much trouble, or cost, as I would like to be able to print off a heap of these to allow students to create models.

EDIT[As I was reading this post after publishing I had a horrible thought, and I wish even more that I had a printer to test these models on, I don't think it is going to work exactly the way I expect. I don't think the nitrogenous base is 'centered' vertically, which means the model may not line up the way I expect, however I still think it might create a great model, now with even more learning due to the 3' and 5' ends of DNA.]

As the students are building them we could discuss DNA structure and function, and because each student could, in theory, create an individual model with a different sequence of nucleic acids we could very easily discuss how only 4 bases can create such a complex code when read in groups of 3.

I think one of the best things about this model is that it is expandable, meaning that you can print off just 4 of the units, or print off 100 of the units and they will link together fine, but I will not know this for sure until I can get it printed, or get my hands on a printer and print it myself. If it works the way I am hoping I will also have to design a base for the model to stand on, build a big one, paint it up and put it in my classroom. I am pretty sure each nucleic acid is about 4 cm high and the blue phosphate is about 15mm in diameter, so the models could become quite large.

I am seriously thinking about crowdfunding for some of these printers for school, I am very impressed with the print quality of the sun flower I received, and from my reading on rep-raps I am concerned that if I build my own and save a few dollars the quality will not be anywhere near as good as the Up Mini. But like so many things I am not entirely sure how to get started or whether I am allowed.

I still think the power of being able to design and build something like this model in MinecraftEdu, which is easy when compared to trying to create a similar model in a CAD program (at least in my experience) is huge. Especially in classrooms, students could progress from building things in MinecraftEdu in younger years to building things in CAD programs if they needed something 'not blocky' but there is no reason that models like my DNA one shown above could not be built in MinecraftEdu by senior students to show their understanding of a concept or topic.

My plan for this model is to use it in senior Biology to give the students a 'hands-on' experience with DNA, and its structure, something which so far in my teaching has only been done with pieces of paper bought and designed to create a spiral staircase, that are already coloured and in my experience the students don't really feel like they 'own' them and they get left in the room when the class ends.

I think if a class were discussing the structure of DNA and each student got to build a physical model of DNA and paint it while the discussion was going on then the model would be 'owned' by the students, they might feel some pride in their creation and in future think about ways that they too could create models of something they learn about to build a better understanding.

Enough of my high horse about where I want to take my teaching, thanks for reading and feel free to comment below.


  1. Hi Mr Elfie, I sent you a message on twitter a few days ago, I am a teacher in NSW who is in the process of buying a class set of licences for Minecraft Edu, however I have also managed to secure some funding from the local P&C for a 3D printer which hopefully will arrive late this year.

    I have chosen to go with the Makerbot Replicator as it has a dual extruder (print in 2 materials at once) and comes mostly assembled and tested (I also am nervous about putting it together and having it not work properly). It's just over $2000 with shipping and I can't wait until it arrives to play with it!

    I had no idea you could print models made in Minecraft, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Material is cheap for this version too, 1kg of plastic costs just $50.

    I would be very keen to see if we can set up a multiplayer server with both of our classes at some point down the track, as I feel it would be a great experience for students and myself.

    I'll email you with my contact details a bit later, just wanted to say great work and your blog is a huge inspiration!

    1. Hi Craig, thanks for your interest. I have still not managed to fund a printer for school, I did however just purchase one for myself this morning, I ended up getting the Up Plus, the plastic is about the same cost so it will be interesting to compare qualities of prints.

      I would love to combine some classes, you being just north of the border will be very helpful as timezones have prevented a lot of the collaborative stuff I want to do.

      Email me and I will help you work out how to print from Minecraft if you need it, I will need to refresh myself anyway but from memory it is not too hard.

      Looking forward to hearing from you.