VIRTCHEM workshop in Prague

29. 5. 2023

VIRTCHEM workshop in Prague

The Faculty of Science at Charles University hosted a groundbreaking workshop on 9-12 May as part of the 4EU+ educational project "VIRTCHEM: The VIRtual Immersive Education for CHEMistry and Chemical Engineering.

VIRTCHEM: a new dimension of teaching chemistry

The workshop explored the transformative potential of virtual reality in teaching. Inspired by the ideas of renowned educator John Amos Comenius, the event emphasized the importance of visuality in education, extending its application from primary schools to secondary schools and universities. Although university students possess advanced abstract thinking skills, incorporating more illustrative teaching methods can enhance their understanding of complex topics.

Comenius, known for his profound educational philosophies, advocated for engaging multiple senses in the learning process. His influential motto "Let it be a golden rule for teachers that everything is demonstrated to as many senses as possible," underscores the belief that utilizing visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile elements can deepen students' comprehension. The VIRTCHEM project, dedicated to upholding Comenius' ideals, aims to introduce a third dimension to teaching, providing students with enhanced insights into topics that can benefit from this additional dimension.

Furthermore, the project fosters collaboration among students from three prestigious universities: Charles University, Sorbonne University and the University of Milan. This collaborative effort encourages the exchange of knowledge and experiences in the fields of chemistry and teaching, fostering invaluable expertise sharing. The project consists of three distinct teaching blocks, each conducted at the participating universities over approximately one week. Virtual reality serves as a prominent teaching method and approach throughout the program.

The programme in Prague focused on exploring the relationship between the properties and structures of selected substances in inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry. Virtual reality emerged as an exceptional and illustrative tool for effectively teaching these subjects. Through immersive experiences, students were transported into the captivating world of molecules and substances, benefiting from visualizations, manipulations, and diverse perspectives on folds, atoms, bonds, and hydrogen bonds. This comprehensive approach not only deepened their knowledge but also fostered comprehension. For example, students gained an understanding of why diamonds are hard, transparent, and lustrous, captivating potential suitors and leading to many positive responses. Conversely, they learned why graphite, despite being black, soft, and highly conductive, may not be the most suitable engagement gift but excels as a writing tool or electrode.

Additionally, virtual reality enabled students to comprehend the highly toxic and flammable nature of white phosphorus, while its red and black variants are relatively safer. They also explored the contrasting properties of methanol and ethanol, understanding why one is hazardous while the other is generally well-tolerated. The program delved into the study of substances with atypical symmetries, such as those exhibiting five-fold symmetry. To ensure a comprehensive education, the Prague program included a laboratory exercise with motivational experiments that complemented the knowledge gained through virtual reality. For instance, students from all participating universities conducted tests on the reactivity of phosphorus and witnessed a captivating chemical show dedicated to the chemistry of fireworks.

Building upon the successful programme in Milan, where participants explored a virtual refinery, students had the unique opportunity to visit an actual refinery in Litvínov. This practical visit provided valuable insights into refinery operations. Additionally, students and teachers from all three universities appreciated an interactive exhibition showcasing the elements of the periodic table at the Faculty of Science of Charles University. The programme also included an informal segment, including an evening barbecue, enabling students to network and exchange perspectives on their respective fields, teaching methods, and student life. Feedback from participating students attested to their appreciation for acquiring knowledge through this unconventional yet highly effective form of education. They particularly enjoyed the hands-on experience of conducting experiments.

Overall, the workshop alongside the broader VIRTCHEM project, can be considered a resounding success. It serves as compelling evidence that virtual reality has the power to captivate students, enhance their understanding, and revolutionize the teaching experience by providing a visually engaging and effective learning tool. We are thrilled to have been part of implementing this exciting educational initiative.