Meet The Scholarship Winners Of A Contest Based On A Minecraft-Inspired Game | KERA News

Meet The Scholarship Winners Of A Contest Based On A Minecraft-Inspired Game

Apr 12, 2016

Last fall, KERA reported on a new scholarship program at the University of Texas at Dallas. Students could win up to $5,000 solving challenges in a computer game similar to Minecraft. Meet some of the winners.

UT Dallas built Polycraft World, based on the mega-popular Minecraft game. Gamers can build things with polymers like rubber, plastics and resins.

The school offered a dozen Polycraft World challenges for scholarship money. 21-year-old engineering student Ben Gravell took on the challenge and won.

“That was the one I devoted most of my energy to,” he says. “Energy and lots of time, many hours, probably anywhere from 20 to 50 hours.”

Gravell has played Minecraft since high school. For Polycraft World, he picked up online tips on how to make bouncier polymers, because the biggest bounce wins.

“Some of the bounciest materials require lots and lots of processing steps in real life,” Gravell explains. “So in the game you have to do lots and lots of things to the basic materials that you can mine or collect in order to get the really bouncy blocks, which are of course are the most fun.”

Fun is what Christina Thompson likes to hear. The UTD senior lecturer helped create Polycraft World so students could learn real-world science.

“Polyisoprene - natural rubber, only bounces [a certain number of times],” Thompson says. “But if you go through the distillation process, there are 12 new rubbers in the game. So if you make a better rubber, a rubber that in the real world is more bouncy, you can bounce really, really high.”

Junior Connor Cone soared on a different contest. Winning college money for a computer game effort is something he never could have dreamed of.

“‘Cool’ [doesn’t] even describe it,” he says. “Polycraft is amazing. It’s run by a lot of smart people. Scholarships from any sort of competitive gaming as opposed to competitive sport are cool to me in and of themselves.”

One of three floors of Cone and Paxton's virtual plastics factory that spits out virtual Lego bricks made of ABS plastic.
Credit from YouTube video created by Connor Cone, Austin Paxton

Cone and his co-winner Austin Paxton built a virtual three-story factory to create a common, but complex plastic used to make Legos. They submitted a video showing how they built it. 

Junior Husam Wadi has won $4,000 in scholarships so far. He’s entered several of the Polycraft challenges; one he won for creating a periodic table out of game blocks. He put pictures on the blocks to make it easy for kids to understand the elements.

In a YouTube video, Wadi is teaching his 5-year-old brother.  

“So for instance what’s this one? Quiksilver! Quiksilver,” Wadi says to his youngest brother in the video. “So my little brother, who has no idea of the periodic table or anything else, can now easily find out what element goes to what. Because before Polycraft, there was just iron, diamond and gold. That’s it. Then you come to Polycraft and there’s 20 different elements.”

Wadi points to a block representing potassium.

“So what about this one?”

“Banana!” says his little brother.

“Banana, and it’s got potassium in it. There you go. What about this one?” continues the YouTube video, describing the Polycraft World Periodic Table of Elements.

Wadi’s brother identifies nickel, silicon, and other elements, thanks to the program he created.

So far, the trial run of this scholarship program has mostly rewarded older UTD students. But Assistant Professor Walter Voit wants to reach bright high school kids drawn into the game’s world of polymer science, so UTD is tweaking the challenges to help younger students become Polycraft masters.

“We see a future for higher education that combines virtual and online and learning with a lot of the brick and mortar learning that goes on here at the university,” Voit says. “So if these scholarships go well and we get a lot of interest, this would be a great way if we could teach them a lot of basics before they ever come to college. So when they get here, they’re already superstars.”   

Superstars created thanks in part to a computer game.