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Image: Mattias Pettersson

Published: 2021-06-10

VR glasses help students visualize molecules

FEATURE With VR glasses on, students can see, twist and turn models of molecules to understand how they are connected and how different chemical reactions take place. The project at the Department of Chemistry, together with "flipped" teaching, has improved a course in organic chemistry that was previously often considered difficult and challenging. The next step is for the students themselves to build virtual molecules.

Text: Anna-Lena Lindskog

“The students think it's cool to use the technology and we also see that they learn better” says chemistry education researcher Karolina Broman who runs the VR project together with teachers Erik Chorell, Michael Holmboe and Dan Johnels (now retired) at the Department of Chemistry and Eva Mårell-Olsson at the Department of Education.

Organic chemistry can be tricky for beginner students in chemistry. Chemical reactions take place in three dimensions, which can be difficult to visualize when reading or seeing two-dimensional illustrations in a textbook. Traditionally, plastic ball-and-stick models are used in teaching to build models of chemical structures.

“That works well when you build small molecules, but when it comes to larger, more complex structures, it becomes complicated” says Karolina Broman.

Time for problem solving in groups

The project at the Department of Chemistry started in 2016 with the renewal of a course in organic chemistry that students usually find it difficult to pass. The teachers decided to "flip" the teaching. Instead of traditional lectures followed by homework, the lectures were recorded. The students got to see them in advance, so that the time in the classroom could be used for problem solving in groups with the teacher as supervisor.

“The students think it's cool to use the technology and we also see that they learn better”

The next step was the virtual reality glasses. In the project, programmers were hired to construct virtual molecular environments.

“What we did in the beginning was not so fancy” says Karolina Broman. “The 3D models were quite simple and we bought VR glasses for SEK 50–100 each, which the students put their mobile phones in. This allowed us to study molecular structures and reaction mechanisms, and the students rotated the molecules with the help of head movements.”

The simplicity had the advantage that when the pandemic struck, teachers and students could continue to look at molecules virtually, now via Zoom. The students had the opportunity to bring VR glasses home.

Cooler with hand controls

The project has now taken it a step further, with more advanced VR glasses and a new software, Nanome, developed by chemists for chemists.

“It is a much cooler version where you use hand controls and can build molecules yourself and see what happens during chemical reactions” says Karolina Broman. “Researchers also use this technology, for example to build drug molecules and test them in theory. The finesse of the software is that you can try things out, what happens to the molecule if I add hydrogen here? Or a chlorine there? And how will the reaction mechanism be depending on from which direction the reactants meet?”

The latest technology requires that the students are on site on campus and Karolina and the others in the project long for it. Then they can also try to let the students experiment with molecular construction in the virtual environment.

Relatively new in Sweden

To date, 150-200 students in the Bachelor's programme in Life Science and the Master of Science in Engineering Biotechnology have become acquainted with the VR technology. The goal is to incorporate it into more courses and with more groups of students, for example master's students in chemistry.

Using VR in chemistry teaching is so far relatively new in Sweden. Karolina Broman has been invited to the universities of Uppsala, Stockholm and Lund to talk about the project. Recently, she also presented it at a Nordtek conference, which includes universities in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

Not a substitute for practical lab work

Seeing the students get aha-experiences and gain new knowledge is great fun and makes this project meaningful, as well as the collaboration with colleagues who all contribute with their different competencies, Karolina Broman thinks. Her ambition is that the project will also generate published research on how VR can be used in teaching.

Can 3D technology in the future replace some of the practical lab work that chemistry students do?

“No, certainly not” she says emphatically. “The students need the practical labs. However, VR is a fantastic complement, just like the plastic models, it is another way to help them with learning in chemistry.”

The project has been funded via Punktum funds for development of education, Umeå School of Education’s research grants and the Faculty of Science and Technology’s Education Committee, in total near two million SEK.