Facilitating Learning of Quantum Chemical Concepts through Grounding in Sensory Experience


Embodied Cognition, Haptic Learning Environment, Preparation for Future Learning, Educational Technology, Tactile Interaction


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 (Fischer & Brugger, 2011)). What about more abstract ideas? A major challenge for educators is introducing students to knowledge outside of this everyday know-how, for example microscopic phenomena like molecules or atoms that are not visible to the human eye or fully ungraspable concepts like energy.

University chemistry students are expected to master highly abstract ideas, like energy, electrostatic forces, or non-classical, probabilistic behavior, often introduced as symbols or equations. To professional chemists, these representations stand for powerful ideas, and they can translate easily between them and what they see in the laboratory. For many students, however, the failure to “see” these ideas contributes to learning difficulties and a loss of interest (Tümay, 2016). This may be avoided, if students could recruit their everyday, embodied know-how to encounter and explore the ideas taught in the classroom. One way to make these concepts accessible to our senses is by introducing haptic feedback to a (chemistry) learning environment (Minogue & Jones, 2006). By navigating a haptic device, the user can feel a feedback that corresponds to non-classical forces present in chemical reactions which are calculated based on quantum mechanical principles. Thanks to the exponential advances in technology, as well as the development of real-time quantum chemistry algorithms, this has now become possible (Marti & Reiher, 2009, Haag & Reiher, 2012, Weymuth & Reiher, 2021).

Figure 1. Visualisation of theoretical framework of this project. We want to create a bridge between what is ungraspable, invisible and what is intuitive, embodied.

This project aims to tackle this educational and technological challenge, and advance the use of embodied cognition in the learning of abstract ideas in (quantum) chemistry.

In a collaboration between the Learning Sciences group of Manu Kapur, and the Theoretical Chemistry group of Markus Reiher, we will engineer and evaluate a haptic learning environment where students encounter and explore potential energy surfaces and the corresponding forces through interactions that are empowering, expressive, and even playful. 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 environments. This virtual environment is governed by the laws of quantum mechanics in a way that is physically meaningful to the student.

Figure 2. Prototype of real-time haptic quantum chemistry GUI.


Research Goals – The goals of this interdisciplinary project are: a) to develop a real-time haptic learning environment based on embodied cognition and learning sciences principles, and b) to design a preparation for future learning (PFL, Schwartz, 1999) intervention to test and refine how the learning of challenging, abstract concepts can be enhanced through the use of this environment.

Hypotheses – We hypothesize that introducing haptic feedback to a learning environment will prepare better for learning in a later lecture than interacting with the environment without the haptic feedback (comparison condition) or watching a movie about the interaction (control condition). These three conditions represent three levels of embodiment. Furthermore, we will explore what cognitive mechanisms might be involved in a potential learning facilitation. We hypothesize that these potential mechanisms include positive affect, state curiosity, knowledge gap awareness, and embodiment.

Video 1. The navigation of the tool will be identical. However, this GUI is no longer in use and is in the process of being replaced by a new GUI based on learning sciences principles.

State of the project

This project will initially exploit the haptic technology developed by the Reiher group to design a haptic learning environment which will be optimized in two iterations of user studies which will take place in fall, 2021. The optimized environment will then be used in a PFL study in spring, 2022, the goal of which is to prepare first-year chemistry students to learn about reaction mechanisms and reactivity. The development of the posttest which will be used to measure the learning outcome of this study is also part of this project and includes content validation through chemists, interviews with students, and piloting in the user studies.


🏅 Müller, C., Kapur, M., Reiher, M. (2021, September 10). Real-Time Haptic Chemistry: Dive Hands-First Into the Molecular World. [Poster Session]. SCS Fall Meeting 2021, online. Runner-up poster award in the session computational chemistry of the SCS Fall Meeting 2021 (funded by the Swiss Chemical Society and DSM Nutritional Products).

Müller, C., Kapur, M., Reiher, M. (2021, August 18 – 20). Access the Molecular World through Haptic Quantum Chemistry[Poster Session]. JURE 2021, online. (pdf)


Fischer, M. H., & Brugger, P. (2011, October 17). When digits help digits: spatial–numerical associations point to finger counting as prime example of embodied cognition. Front. Psychol., pp. 1-7.

Haag, M. P., & Reiher, M. (2012). Real-time quantum chemistry. International Journal of Quantum Chemistry, 113(1), 8-20.

Marti, K. H., & Reiher, M. (2009). Haptic quantum chemistry. Journal of Computational Chemistry, 30(13), 2010-2020.

Minogue, J., & Jones, M. G. (2006). Haptics in Education: Exploring an Untapped Sensory Modality. Review of Educational Research, 76(3), 317-348.

Schwartz, D. L. (1999). Chapter 3: Rethinking Transfer: A Simple Proposal with Multiple Implications. Review of Research in Education, 24(1), 61-100.

Tümay, H. (2016). Reconsidering learning difficulties and misconceptions in chemistry: Emergence in chemistry and its implications for chemical education. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 17(2), 229-245.

Weymuth, T., & Reiher, M. (2021, February). Immersive Interactive Quantum Mechanics for Teaching and Learning Chemistry. CHIMIA International Journal for Chemistry, 75(1-2), pp. 45-49.

Charlotte Müller

Prof. Dr. Manu Kapur

Prof. Dr. Markus Reiher