By Shannon O’Brien

Virtual and augmented reality allow students to experience the 3D nature of molecules.

A colorful photo of the myoglobin molecule
In a compact lab in sawyer library one morning last fall, Amy Garcia ’22 donned some black goggles and, holding a wand in one hand, waited to spot a molecule in the darkness around her.

“Oh, hello,” she said as she glanced to the right and caught sight of a collection of green curls. “I like this one.” She used the wand to pull it toward her for closer inspection.

A computer monitor displayed what Garcia was seeing, and a teaching assistant asked her what she noticed about the molecule. Garcia spotted iron and asked if it was a globin protein. The TA confirmed it was, and Garcia correctly identified it as myoglobin. Looking to her left and right, Garcia saw the myoglobin curls suspended all around her, and laughed.

Garcia was one of 37 students in Introductory Chemistry, taught by Professor Christopher Goh, who last semester used virtual reality and augmented reality in his teaching for the first time. Both tools “give students the ability to experience the three-dimensional nature of molecules,” says Goh, who has been at Williams since 2007 and also teaches organic and inorganic chemistry and methods of analysis.

Chemistry courses commonly use two-dimensional representations and plastic models to help students understand the shape of molecules. But Goh says adding virtual reality and augmented reality—a pedagogical shift he learned about at a Liberal Arts Collaborative for Digital Innovation workshop on how technology can be used in STEM fields—greatly enhanced the introductory course, which he’s taught before. Now students were able to watch molecular processes as they unfolded and to interact with molecules in a more nuanced way.

In addition to the virtual reality goggles, Goh’s students used an augmented reality app to view and rotate three-dimensional renderings of chemical reactions on their mobile devices. The app was designed by three Williams students at the Center for Educational Technology. Located in the library, the center provides spaces and tools that enhance teaching and learning in all areas of the curriculum, says Jonathan Leamon, director of instructional technology. Resources include a recording studio, a video conference room, a “maker space” with a 3D printer and scanner, and the virtual reality lab Goh used for his course.

Garcia, who is considering a biology major, had never used virtual reality prior to Goh’s course. She liked being able to scale a molecule to different sizes and see it from different angles. “It was definitely easier to retain the information with the model right in front of me in three dimensions,” she says, adding that being exposed to virtual reality in general “develops and improves our skills in a world where technology is rapidly evolving.”

Goh, whose research focuses on metal-based catalysis that occurs in many biochemical and chemical processes, is happy to offer another method of learning to students. “There will be some students for whom things will click when they see molecules through virtual reality,” he says. “For a visual learner, virtual reality really leaves deep impressions.”