The value of Nano Simbox in undergraduate teaching

Our Chemistry Content intern Liam Cullingford is a Natural Sciences graduate from the University of Bath. Here he explores the necessity for changes in undergraduate teaching and how the Nano Simbox platform could have aided his studies at university. Welcome Liam!

Chemistry is often known as the “central science”. Placed on a spectrum directly between the theoretical and maths based sciences such as physics and more macroscopic, intuitive life sciences like biology – it can encompass different aspects of all science.

Most natural scientists therefore have some chemistry learning to be done during their course at some point, whether they like it or not! Personally I have always preferred physics because you have the opportunity to get closer to the more fundamental problems that keep scientists awake at night but I am not of a mathematical mind-set which is a huge set-back. I got by, but in my time at university I met chemists that couldn’t touch a maths book and also physicists that only saw the world as numbers. I think that there has to be a way to marry these two ways of thinking and make teaching such interdisciplinary courses simpler.

Orbital Theory
© Orbital Theory via

One of the most obvious topics that I struggled with was group theory. The pure mathematical theory of symmetry and rotation, it is used regularly by chemists of all types to describe the shapes of bonds and molecules. Students currently make do with plastic models to simulate the rotations and translations that define the different point groups, but when a rotation is on a strange axis or a molecule is very complex it becomes difficult. Clearly here is where Nano Simbox as a platform could come in and make those mathematical descriptions of movement in real space so much simpler. Whether you could physically rotate the molecules in VR and see how they affected the mathematics or use a tablet to simply see the rotations as an exercise to strengthen your knowledge. Inorganic chemistry as a whole is also full of topics that involve shape and rotation, from ligand field theory, to x-ray spectroscopy. Orbital theory also, is entirely new at university level and totally visual. I have no doubt that Nano Simbox could make the visualisation of these problems simpler but also given the fact that all of the simulations are based on hard scientific models, it could be used to show how all these theories are affected by the more mathematical side of chemistry. When adding energy or taking it away you could see the effects to shape in real time.

I also feel it could have made other, drier areas of chemistry much more appealing. Physical chemistry in particular can be very dull if taught poorly. Many areas could be made to feel more visual, such as seeing how energy affects a substance either chemisorbed or physisorbed to a surface. Physically throwing a molecule fast enough in VR could show how it will react more readily, demonstrating collision theory. It could even be used to show how rate changes occur through intermediates. Nano Simbox can already show some of the vibrational character of molecules, this could be extended to show vibrational spectroscopy and how molecules absorb energy. I’m sure the list could be endless when it comes to livening up physical chemistry.

Undergraduate Nano SimboxOn a more personal level, my final year project was based on condensed matter, the physics of materials, but entirely theoretical and without practical application. My goal was to find a simple model for why the properties of a crystal solid called coronene changed when it was grown in a magnetic field. I struggled a lot because as I mentioned I have always found situations where there are no visual prompts a lot harder to deal with. This resulted in multiple notepads being filled with strange sketches and hexagons just to give my brain something to grasp hold of. What I really needed was a simple, intuitive piece of software (which could also handle scientific data) that could allow me to visualise the problem. This is where I think I could have made the most use of the Nano Simbox platform: to step into the crystal coronene in VR (or on a device) and be able to see the molecules and the problem in front of me.

I am aware there are still questions around the technology, the price, how it fits into the current status quo (does it take lab time or does it take tutorial time?) and there will need to be further discussions about that I’m sure. However, if the question is “can there be a place for Nano Simbox to influence teaching at a higher level?” the answer is yes. Speaking as a visual thinker in a mathematical field it could have made a huge difference to my university life and engaged me in subjects that frankly I gave up on because I thought: “TOO MUCH MATHS!!”



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