Learning of Quantum Chemistry

Advancing understanding of learning

The Problem: Leading voices in education have long called for the creation of learning environments taking full advantage of our embodied intuitions. Even very young children are endowed with a certain embodied know-how, such as the ability to recognize and manipulate generic objects. Because of this, simpler ideas can be introduced to children through a manipulation of concrete objects (e.g., addition as grouping). What about more abstract ideas? A major challenge for educators is introducing students to knowledge outside of this everyday know-how.

University students are expected to master highly abstract ideas, ideas often introduced via symbols on paper, blackboard, or a computer screen. To scientists and mathematicians, these representations stand for powerful ideas. For many students, however, the failure to “see” these ideas contributes to learning difficulties and a loss of interest. This may be avoided, if students could recruit their everyday, embodied know-how to encounter and explore the ideas taught in the classroom. The recent appearance of high-quality, low-cost technologies that enable embodied interaction signals that now is the time to make this vision a reality. While these technologies are still emerging, there is every indication that they will become widespread in the coming decade. Now is the time to lay foundations for research on the educational potential of immersive, embodied learning in the sciences and mathematics.

This project aims to tackle this educational and technological challenge, and advance the use of embodied cognition in the learning of challenging, abstract ideas in the sciences and mathematics.

A collaboration between the Learning Sciences group of Manu Kapur, the Chemistry group of Markus Reiher, and the Game Technology group of Robert Sumner, we will engineer and evaluate environments where students encounter and explore powerful ideas through interactions that are empowering, expressive, and even playful. We will interrogate these environments across two interrelated strands: (i) the design of haptic educational devices, and (ii) the development of cutting-edge, educational gaming environments. Imagine chemistry students armed with haptic devices that allow them to feel forces on molecules as they explore quantum molecular worlds in real-time, virtual reality environments. This virtual reality environment is governed by the laws of quantum mechanics in a way that is physically meaningful to the student. Parallel to this focus on content, we will simultaneously pursue a line of research on the highly-interactive gaming environments for learning. Augmented and mixed reality gaming environments provide a unique opportunity to combine digital enhancements with real-world interaction to explore and develop novel learning methodologies for exploring significant questions about human behavior. In this setting, a game becomes a testbed to hypothesize, experiment, and generate targeted data and build data science models to search for patterns of learning behavior.

Research Goals / Questions: The goals of this interdisciplinary project are: a) to further develop technology (haptic effects, virtual reality, augmented reality, etc.) based on embodied cognition and learning sciences principles, and b) to design interventions to test and refine how the learning of challenging, abstract concepts can be enhanced through the use of these technologies.

Research Strategy: This project will initially exploit the haptic technology developed by the Reiher group to design innovative ways of learning concepts in quantum chemistry. Manu’s team will bring in the expertise in learning sciences and embodied cognition. Sumner’s team will provide expertise in machine learning and game design to offer students a more personalized, engaging learning experience. Simultaneously, Manu’s and Sumner’s team will explore the use of augmented and mixed reality games as a means of assisting students with graphical (visuospatial) interpretations of mathematical ideas.

Translating research into practice

Findings from this research will have direct implications for introductory and exploratory classroom activities. Moreover, by enabling students to more directly encounter and explore knowledge that is often locked away behind symbolic formalisms, this project offers the potential to democratize access to powerful ideas. Finally, such technologies may be of use not only to students, but even to experts who might benefit from encountering a known idea from a novel perspective. The project has obvious synergies with the professorships on learning and technology (3.1), engineering education (3.2), as well as projects in medical education (4.1) and Physical Spaces (4.7).

Charlotte Müller

Markus Reiher

Manu Kapur