A photo of students in Professor Christorpher Goh's Introductory Chemistry course using virtual reality to learn about molecules. The student in the foreground wears black goggles and is looking up at the ceiling.

Inside Molecules

Above: Chelsea Romulus ’22 tries out virtual reality in Professor Christopher Goh’s Introductory Chemistry course.

Wearing black goggles and holding a wand, Amy Garcia ’22 waits to spot a molecule in the darkness around her. From near the back of the compact lab in Sawyer Library, Cory Campbell, instructional technology specialist in the Office for Information Technology, suggests that Garcia physically turn her head to find what she’s looking for.

“Oh, hello,” Garcia says as she glances to the right and catches sight of a collection of green curls. “I like this one,” she says, using the wand to pull it toward her for closer inspection.

A computer monitor displays what Garcia is seeing, and a teaching assistant asks her what she notices about the molecule. Garcia spots iron and asks if it’s another globin protein. The TA confirms it is, and Garcia correctly identifies it as myoglobin. Garcia then looks around, taking in the myoglobin curls suspended all around her, and laughs.

A photo showing how a phone app can read a two dimensional code and turn it into a three dimensional image on the phone screen.
Kai Cash ’19, Kelvin Tejeda ’20 and Karol Regula ’21 created an app that allows users to rotate a three-dimensional rendering of reactions.

The students are using the lab as part of Professor Christopher Goh’s Introductory Chemistry course, where he’s using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for the first time in his teaching. Both methods “give students the ability to experience the three-dimensional nature of molecules,” he says.

VR allows students to engage with molecules in a seemingly real way. Meanwhile, the AR app Goh uses—created by three Williams students— allows users to rotate a three-dimensional rendering of reactions, viewing the molecules as if they were in the room.

These tools and others are available to faculty and students through the Center for Educational Technology, located in Sawyer library. The CET is a facility designed to enhance the relationship between learning and technology. Faculty from English, art and biology have used some of the tools in their teaching.

Goh was inspired to experiment with VR and AR after attending a Liberal Arts Collaborative for Digital Innovation workshop on how technology can be used in STEM fields. Both technologies are helpful in science courses like Goh’s because they offer students a way of understanding the three-dimensional nature of molecular processes, which may not translate clearly to two-dimensional representations. With plastic models commonly used in chemistry classes, students see the shapes of molecules; with VR, they can experience the spatial relationships of molecules.

Garcia, who is considering a biology major, had never used virtual reality before taking a tour of molecules in the lab at the library. Scaling the molecule to different sizes and seeing it from different angles was most interesting to her. “It was definitely easier to retain the information with the model right in front of me in three dimensions,” she says, adding that VR and AR “develops and improves our skills in a world where technology is rapidly evolving,” she says.

Goh says he’s happy to offer another method of learning to students. “There will be some students for whom—seeing molecules through this—things will click,” he says. “The VR piece, for a visual learner, really leaves deep impressions.”

—Story and photos by Shannon O’Brien

A photo of a student wearing googles as part of a virtual reality lab for chemistry class. At left, the teaching assistant monitors two screens that show what the student sees.
The screens at left show what the student sees in her googles.