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Reactive realities: VR in the chemistry classroom

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Atoms, molecules and chemical bonds – the molecular world that chemists explore with fascination is not visible, even with a powerful microscope. Teaching the mechanics of molecules is difficult for teachers, and even harder for students to understand. Because of this inherent challenge, chemistry is often taught as a series of facts to memorise, losing student interest and enthusiasm along the way.

Dr Mihye Won is a researcher and Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Curtin, and asked if we could do more for students.

“As a science teacher, this is a challenge we face every day. How can I help students see and feel the molecular world? How can I reignite students’ natural inquisitive minds to explore the molecular world?”

To better support student learning, Won and her research team have received an Australian Research Council grant to investigate virtual reality (VR) as a way to visualise the molecular world – and the results are promising.

“VR gives a superior sense of what is happening in the molecular world – you can zoom in and out, and move around in an intuitive way. It makes it much easier to see molecular structures and key parts of a reaction, which is not done as well via other modes,” Won says.

The research team designed a series of immersive VR learning activities to showcase the enzyme structure acetylcholinesterase and its reactions, which complete the neurotransmission process in the body. A group of Curtin’s first-year chemistry students tested the VR activities last year.

“Woah, it was amazing!” the students beamed after taking off their VR headsets.

Each learning activity led a pair of students through a series of tasks. They built a molecule, then followed the journey of the enzyme reaction.

Students found the ‘tactile’ experience of VR engaging and they were able to quickly build and move molecules to see how they interacted. Watching the students walk around, bend over and peer around virtual objects was a highlight for the team.

“When I accidentally zoomed in too fast, I thought the electron cloud would hit my face!” said an excited participant.

The collaborative aspects of the experience are unique among VR learning activities, which are usually completed solo. Working together allowed the students to learn from and help each other. Teamwork also made the activity more interesting for the students, who said they enjoyed discussing their answers together.

“It was great to go through this together with my friend,” said a participant.

“We were double-checking the molecule structure, tugging things so it wouldn’t fall apart … it was a lot of fun doing that, piecing it together,” they added.

Many students reported that the enzyme reaction was different from what they had visualised from more traditional classroom learning. Before ‘seeing’ the reaction in a VR environment, it was difficult to understand its scale and complexity.

“What we learnt in class was misleading a little bit, because it relies on your perceptions of what it could be rather than showing what it is like,” a participant noted.

“Now I know an enzyme is not just a blob, it is a complex protein.”

Won hopes the study will kickstart greater interest in VR and education, particularly in teaching science.

“There are tons of possibilities for educational VR and improving student outcomes. We encourage researchers to investigate applying this emerging technology to education.”

The research is timely, and comes at a point where government, business and industry are beginning to realise the potential of VR. While VR development has been mostly focused on gaming, the technology is poised to integrate into many sectors.

Tomorrow’s workforce may use VR to learn the latest surgical techniques, fast-prototype new product designs, or help people with phobias overcome their fears in a controlled setting. Exposure to VR will help future employees craft VR experiences that educate, entertain and connect people.

With the success of the initial study, Won’s research team will take students into another molecular realm, exploring snowflakes and sweet tasting molecules. Won’s next goal is to create a VR environment that can be readily integrated into many forms of science education, including high school science classes.

“At the moment, there is a lack of quality VR for education, and teachers do not consider VR as a viable learning platform for their students,” she explains.

“I hope my research creates more interest in developing educational VR content, and makes teachers seriously consider if it can form part of the education they provide.”

After building molecules and soaring through an enzyme, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine that VR will be part of future education soon.

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