25 Mar '13

News Teaching molecules using games, Gangnam Style and retro 3D posters

Chemistry teacher Rich Thornley is helping pupils get to grips with molecular geometry using interactive games and magic eye posters

Chemistry is, I will admit, sometimes hard to love. Essentially, I have devoted my academic life to the electron – a particle no one has ever seen and which noted physicist Richard Feynman postulated there was only one in the entire universe.

Molecular geometry is a thorny subject, requiring students to manipulate 3D objects in their heads and deliver the names and bond angles of the resulting shapes which govern many of their properties, such as boiling point and solubility. Ammonia molecules, for example, are tiny squashed pyramids but there are myriad other shapes from seesaws to dog legs.

Engaging with them in 2D, or briefly in school with a never to be seen again plastic model can, understandably, be uninspiring. There are many ways to teach this peculiar topic which only half of the students are able to grasp at first. So it must be approached multiple times in multiple ways.

I always try to teach using riddles and paradoxes, so for this lesson pose the question: if a teacher wants to seat three chatty students equally apart from each other, what seating arrangement should he or she choose?

An equilateral triangle, comes the answer. So what about four students? In a square maybe? No, this separates the student across the square further apart from the others. A circle? What about a kite? No, no and no.

Eventually some bright spark realises that the only place for the fourth student is on the next floor up, making a tetrahedron.

Then I fire up the video game Garry's Mod. Anything is possible in it. Theatre productions can be storyboarded, individually-built rollercoasters ridden, recreations of Bin Laden's last stand, car races and endless physics including buoyancy, acceleration, pendulums and gravity. More importantly, it is a real game, not some faux education chunky, clunky mess.

A student goes 'behind the eyes' of the main character and investigates a world populated by larger than life molecules. They can walk around, manipulate and then destroy them.

Hooking up a Microsoft Kinect device allows further interaction. Students appear within the game, fully articulated, their body movements correlated to the character. Now the molecule can be struck, rotated and vibrated by the flailing of the kids' limbs, just like scientists would do using specialist equipment such as a dual beam infrared spectrophotometer.

Even the management at my school got involved, with staff nearly slipping a disc with a particularly enthusiastic bond vibration. Until you have seen a supervisor perform Gangnam Style avatared through a zombie with oxygen molecules glued to his hands, you haven't lived.

So, it's time for the 'show-you-know' part of the lesson. Using the Flash Gear online resource http://www.flash-gear.com/stereo/ the kids create 3D stereograms of the molecules. These magic eye images were big in the 90s, but many have never seen them before. This requires the translating of a 3D shape into a 2D height map, which will then be pulled back into 3D. Completion of this results in a deep level of understanding, as well as throngs of pupils blocking corridors near class display boards, ogling the eye-popping images.

In terms of learning outcomes, each student will at some stage have created, manipulated and explained to their peers and me molecular geometry.

For more instant results, nothing impresses quicker than the augmented reality app Aurasma. A static scene in real life, say a picture on your desk, can be made to come to life as a video or animation on a tablet screen.

This is easier to do, rather than explain here. So download and open the Aurasma app, search for 'IB Chemistry', click follow, then press '[ ]'.

Hold your tablet up to the photo below and a molecule should spring to life before your very eyes.

Here's a YouTube video to show you exactly what I mean:

Delightfully, some students have taken these ideas and improved on them. If you were to hold a tablet up to the mould stain on my classroom ceiling it will play a video explaining the role of penicillin in bacterial warfare.

Richard Thornley is a teacher at the United Nations International School in New York City. He has taught in eight schools and six countries. He has made 350 videos for the entire International Baccalaureate chemistry course and uploaded them to YouTube.

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