Using Minecraft to teach solid mechanics

When COVID forced all students to become online learners in 2020, the School of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University made the most of the opportunity. Students and faculty collaborated to create a solid mechanics curriculum based around Minecraft, the best-selling video game in history.

Double curveball

Zac Beck enrolled in Purdue in 2018. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” he said, “but I loved building stuff and working with machines, and I knew mechanical engineering was very broad and would enable me to do anything.”

But in 2020, he was about to receive a double curveball. Not only would the COVID-19 pandemic soon change the world’s landscape, the resulting lockdowns would cancel out his greatest strength — working with his hands. “At the time, students thought we were just getting an extra week of Spring Break,” Beck remembered. “But then all of our classes went online.”

At the same time, Adrian Buganza Tepole, associate professor of mechanical engineering, had a side project he didn’t know what to do with. “I was experimenting with computer modeling using smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH),” said Tepole, whose research involves modeling the deformation of soft tissues like human skin. “I had some Python code I was playing around with for research purposes. But when COVID hit, it presented an opportunity for both me and my students.”

Summer is usually when Purdue students undertake internships, co-ops, or Study Abroad experiences. Because none of those were possible in 2020, the School of Mechanical Engineering created an alternative program called Summer Projects, where students could work remotely on real-world research and service projects. One of those projects involved this bit of Python code, and a particular video game.

“I knew that there was a way to translate Python code into Minecraft,” said Tepole. “But I didn’t know how, or what we could do with it. So I just threw it out there to the students, and they went to work.”

This Minecraft mod from the Tepole Lab creates challenges for solid mechanics students focused on stress and deflection. In this example, students need to build a barn truss to support the weight of the force blocks (indicated with the down arrow). Custom "Tepolium" blocks display the amount of stress using colors, with purple being the least and red being the most.

Building blocks

Minecraft is the best-selling video game in history. It offers an open 3D sandbox-like environment, where users can build structures with basic block-shaped elements. One of the reasons Minecraft became so popular is its modifications (or “mods”), which allow users to use computer code to customize the blocks and the environment (such as re-creating all of Purdue’s campus using Minecraft blocks).

Step one for these summer students was to get the code working. “They figured out how to port my Python code to Java, and then get it working in Minecraft,” said Tepole. “So they laid the foundations, and then Zac’s group really took it to new heights.”

“I’ve been playing Minecraft since I was little,” said Beck. “I’d used mods before, but never built one myself. So I was excited to learn this new programming language and figure out what we could do with it.”

Their first exercise was a simple bridge-building challenge. The team created a blocky desert canyon environment, with a river running through the middle. Two roads appear at the left and right, and between them is a flat plane of blocks suspended in midair, with no supports. The challenge is to add supports to minimize the stress on the bridge.

“The key part of this mod is the Tepolium block,” said Zac. “We created this custom block to display the stresses involved, given the weight of the blocks and the deflection they experience based on smoothed-particle hydrodynamics.” (Tepole laughs: “I didn’t tell them to name it that — that was their idea!”)

Nearby is a large button to trigger the simulation. When you hit the button, the code calculates the stresses involved, and displays them on the Tepolium blocks using a color spectrum. If you leave the bridge with no supports, it will turn solid black, indicating complete failure. But if you use Tepolium blocks to build a center support, the simulation displays purple blocks in the horizontal platforms, and red in the middle — showing places of minimum and maximum stress, respectively.

From this, many different challenges could be presented to students: whose bridge has the least stress, or who can build a qualifying bridge using the least amount of blocks, or without using a center support. Every aspect of the simulation can be modified through code to teach a different aspect of solid mechanics.

Zac and his team created many different challenges, each with their own visual flourishes. To build a load-supporting roof truss, they designed a barnyard environment full of animals. For Halloween, they constructed an arched bridge challenge in Minecraft’s underground “Nether” world, full of lava and fire. In an Old West environment, students had a “shootout” to determine which cross-section design would support a cantilevered beam with the least amount of deflection.

They even expanded the exercise into biomedical engineering. Students were instructed to build scale models of various animals with Tepolium blocks, factoring in the design of their respective skeletons. Running the simulation would illustrate where, for example, a giraffe’s skeleton might experience the most amount of stress.

In this Minecraft mod, biomechanics students build representations of animals to see where the skeletons exhibit the greatest amount of stress.

Perpendicular pedagogy

After building the challenges, the next step was to try it in a classroom. Tepole rolled out the Minecraft mods in the Honors sections of two courses: ME 270 Basic Mechanics I (Statics), and ME323 Mechanics of Materials. “There was a bit of a logistical learning curve, because not everyone had used Minecraft mods before,” said Tepole. “But once Zac got it up and running, the students surprised us by coming up with completely different solutions from what we were expecting.”

Tepole also reached out to William R. Watson, professor in the College of Education and director of the Purdue Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual Environments. “Bill and his Ph.D. student Alexander Bowman helped us reframe the exercise as open-ended challenges, rather than looking for a specific answer like engineers are used to,” said Tepole.

“We basically wanted to create some intuition for the optimal ways of building structures by predicting when, where, and why things break,” he said. “Letting students experience it themselves in Minecraft gives them instant visual feedback, which reinforces the concepts we learn in the classroom.”

“This definitely would have helped me as a student,” said Beck. “Like a lot of engineers, I’ve always been very hands-on. Building those bridges, and then seeing that instant feedback of where the stresses are, was great. Even after taking the class, I kept learning more about solid mechanics through developing this mod. So there’s a lot of benefit to this method.”

Their research has been published in Biomedical Engineering Education, and the Minecraft mods are available at Tepole’s website.

Beck, who graduated in 2022 and is now a manufacturing engineer at Rogue Fitness in Columbus, Ohio, can add “published researcher” to his resumé. “That’s something I definitely did not expect to happen in my career!” laughed Beck. “But it’s very cool, and I’m proud of the work we accomplished.”

Tepole expects to continue using the Minecraft mods in his Fall 2024 sections of Statics and Mechanics of Materials. “Now the goal is to deploy this at scale,” said Tepole. “We’ve seen the success of this method, and now we are creating a user-friendly package that anyone can learn from.”

Try the Tepole Lab Minecraft mods yourself!


Writer: Jared Pike,, 765-496-0374

Source: Adrian Buganza Tepole,


Elasticity Solver in Minecraft for Learning Mechanics of Materials by Gaming
Zachariah Beck, Brandon Alpert, Alexander Bowman, William R. Watson, Adrian B. Tepole
ABSTRACT: Video games have emerged as a medium for learning by creating engaging environments, encouraging creative and deep thinking, and exposing learners to complex problems. Unfortunately, even though there are increasing examples of video games for many basic science and engineering concepts, similar efforts for higher level engineering concepts such as mechanics of materials are still lacking. Here, we present a mesh-free elasticity solver implementation in the popular video game Minecraft, a sandbox game where players can build any structure they can imagine. Modifications to the game, called mods in the Minecraft community, are a common feature of this platform. Our elasticity mod computes the stress and deformation of arbitrary structures and colors the blocks with a heat map to visualize the result of the analysis. We used this mod in the Honors section of two courses: Basic Mechanics I Statics, and Mechanics of Materials. This teaching tip describes our experience developing and deploying this tool to encourage its use in biomedical engineering classrooms. A future goal is to engage the broader audience of Minecraft players.