Last Saturday (18th March, 2017), I ran the “Minecraft Engineering” activity at the Science and Engineering Day.
Useful links and downloads are included in the updated post about it from 2016.
We were co-located with the Minecraft implementation of the model railway, which connects ways the university research intersects with railways. The model was built by the talented young Joe Roberts, who ran a bay of 10 computers for the entire 6 hours of the event.
My activity was run on 20 machines supported by a volunteer named Jamie Scott, and myself.
What went well?
Both Jamie and Joe were tireless in their patience, enthusiasm and professionalism working with the hundreds of families passing through in the day. Both of them dealt with technical issues in a calm and effective way. Their combination of talent and can-do should take them far in life.
- Using desktop machines with mice rather than laptops: Lack of mice was a big problem last year (we had some but not enough), and transporting 12 expensive laptops added to the stress at the start and end of the day. Our very nice desktop support people got it all installed very nicely.
- Purchasing Minecraft accounts with logical usernames, rather than last year when we borrowed accounts from everyone we could, which made setup complex.
- Optifine; this is a mod which lets you use “shaders” which make everything look pretty; shadows, reflections on the water, rays of sunlight. This showed off our expensive hardware nicely.
- Jamie created a server with all my maps on using “bungee” which let people walk through portals into different worlds. This meant we didn’t need to copy a memory stick of save files onto every machine and gave a smoother interface for the children.
- Rather than last year’s laminated cards, I printed all the notes in 10 booklets. A few people wanted to take them home, but I agreed to put a PDF online, and the front page had a URL of last year’s blog post, where I put a link so they could just photograph or write that down.
- My 3D models of cities from open data gave families a nice A-ha moment.
- The Gong: last year we used electronic 15 minute timers on each machine, which were switched down to 10 minutes due to queues. It was certain some sneaky kids were pausing their timers, or up to other shinanigans (like I would at that age). This year we tried starting sessions every 15 minutes and ending them with a large gong I happened to have in the garage. It worked really well and there were very few arguments or sulks as a result.
- Packing up was really quick. Although there was some custard powder on the floor (sorry cleaners).
What was a mixed bag?
I planned to set up 10 machines with Optifine, and 10 with cyan/red 3D glasses. Some people loved the 3D glasses, other people hated it, others wanted to see it but then wanted to change back so we ended up navigating those menu options 50 times at least. I took 125 of the cheap glasses and finished the day with about 75 left. I was fine with people taking a set of these home if they wanted as they are £2.00 for a pack of 10 (plus postage).
- The “lobby” on Jamie’s server was a bit too big, and it wasn’t quite clear what to do. Jamie made a portal to a default “survival” world, which meant that if we didn’t guide people, the kids just headed for that and messed around for 15 minutes. More volunteers would have smoothed that issue, but if we had it over I’d make the portals much more simple and close together, and not offer the survival world option or any PvP!
- Initially people couldn’t teleport on the big city maps, which Jamie managed to fix. We also shifted those maps into full creative, which ended up with Elizabeth Tower (big ben) covered in lava, and the lawn at Buckingham Palace having a few TNT crators, but this helped show that these maps were interactive and very big “play mats” rather than static demos behind glass.
- The Redstone map seemed to go OK with those who tried it. Jamie set up a very clever mode where the demonstation was fixed (they couldn’t break it) but they could walk out into the wilderness and build their own things. That’s an idea I’d like to take further another time.
- We had a bit of a panic that when we tested multiplayer on Friday, the machines gave a windows firewall warning about network access, but after a bit of prodding it seemed we could still connect to external servers. My best guess is that the multiplayer screen also attempts to listen on the local network for servers, and that triggered the warning. So a storm in a teacup, but worth mentioning in case it bites someone in future.
What didn’t work?
- We didn’t have enough staff to do this to the standard I’d have liked. The 3 of us were more or less flat out for 6 hours, and that’s not reasonable. I tried to eat an apple and it went brown in between bites. ECS volunters were down in general, but one more person would have let us take breathers. Next year, if we do this again, I must make much more of a campaign to get helpers.
- I should have had fliers to take away with information and how to get in touch etc. We did that last year.
- My “Minecraft Archaeology” map requires too much explanation to be suitable for this envioronment. It might work better in a classroom setting, but the only child who got into it was one who’s father was with him and already understood the purpose of that map from an earlier conversation.
- Registering Minecraft accounts enmasse is a nightmare. The online options do not let you buy more than between 2 and 5 before it triggers something that stops you buying any more on that card. In the end I got a lot of scratch cards from ASDA, and even then there was a maximum of 5 on each transaction! We had a look at the educational version of Minecraft, which is much easier to get bulk licenses for, but it’s incompatible with normal Minecraft (it’s the dreaded microsofted version) so you can’t load normal maps, can’t convert them, and can’t use mods or anything else that makes life interesting.
Overall we did very well, but could have done better with more planning, preperation and staff on the day.
Apparently feedback from the larger event was it was so big that people couldn’t do it in a single day, and could we make it two days next year? I don’t think I could physically manage that without a holiday afterwards!