Say Good-bye To Your Model Kit

March 27, 2019
Company & TechnologySarah Wegwerth

I have a confession to make. I didn’t buy a plastic model kit as an undergrad. I would have, but a good friend of mine let me borrow hers. Still, I didn’t buy it even after I fell in love with organic chemistry. Why? I HATED carrying it around. My backpack was full enough without having to worry about tiny plastic atoms and bonds exploding all over the place the second I opened my bag. (I rarely studied in my own dorm room.)

Then, I went to graduate school. Wow, did I regret not buying a plastic model kit! Long before Facebook marketplace was a thing, I was on Facebook soliciting my undergraduate friends to see if I could buy their old model kit. I successfully found one, but my synthetic target molecule in graduate school was HUGE. I distinctly remember bringing a partial model to group meeting and then learning that the group motto was “if you don’t have enough pieces, find a friend!” I never made that mistake again.

As a new instructor I was at a loss as to how to show a model to all 200+ students at once. My best solution, was to hold the model under the document camera. Some students informed me that they though valued the inclusion of the models in lecture, but it was hard to see it.

The institution I went to for graduate school did have a license to a program that allowed you to build, view, and rotate 3D molecules. Unfortunately, it only worked on a PC and I was a mac user. A solution to all my modeling woes just…out of… reach…

It is because of these experiences that I strongly supported the idea for the development of a model set for touch screen devices. Beyond my own experiences, I wanted to see what research had been done on 3D touch screen modeling for chemical education. The work of Brett McCollum from Mount Royal University in Calgary, CA (1-2) examined these ideas.

In 2014, McCollum and co-workers reported that the use of touch-screen devices, in this case, iPads, allowed students to complete a representational transformation task better than those using only a static 2D ball-and-stick image (1). They proposed that the iPad removed the need for spatial training and reduced the cognitive load of the tasks for students. You might be wondering, what happens when they no longer have access to the iPad? Turns out, the students who started off using the iPad still performed significantly better than those who never interacted with the iPad model.

Additionally, in 2016, McCollum reported the variations in students’ experiences using three different structural representations: a plastic model, ball-and-stick printed images, and a rotatable ball-and-stick model on the iPad (2). For this study, they performed semi-structured think-aloud interviews of students who had little experience working with molecular shapes. They found that:

“The iPad as a touch-screen tablet promoted development of higher-level problem-solving strategies by chemistry students for transforming between common chemical representations than the traditionally used representational technologies of plastic models and static ball-and-stick images.”

There were two notable take-aways for me from this research.

1. Students valued how the iPad allowed for ready comparison between orientations.

"Here Participant 16 identified a challenge with the plastic model—they could not collapse the 3D model onto a 2D representation. They preferred the iPad because it can be manipulated in a virtual 3D environment (unlike the static paper image) and it can also be set to a fixed orientation, at which point it is simply an image on a 2D surface (unlike the plastic model) and thus easier to compare with the structural formulae."

2. Surprisingly, students preferred the plastic model kit even though they were more successful with the iPad.

"Based on our observations, we argue that the level of familiarity a learner has with a specific learning resource will impact whether some learners choose to utilize the learning resource, regardless of its association with their chances of success."

This second observation supports why guidance from instructors is important when integrating new digital technology. Buy-in from faculty eases the path to familiarity. We regularly incorporate both instructor and student feedback as we design our learning tools, including our new model set app.

Imagine a model set that doesn’t spill its contents all over the place, doesn’t run out of pieces, can be projected on a screen for a lecture hall, allows you to rapidly build molecules, is compatible with both iOS and Android devices, and can be used in Augmented Reality.

Say hi to ModelAR -- and it will say hi back! (Really.)


Download information for ModelAR is at our website.

(1) McCollum, B. M., Regier, L., Leong, J., Simpson, S., Sterner, S. The effects of using touch-screen devices on students’ molecular visualization and representational competence skills. J. Chem. Educ. 2014, 91, 1810.

(2) McCollum, B., Sepulveda, A., & Moreno, Y. Representational technologies and learner problem solving strategies in chemistry. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 2016, 4, 2.


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