Virtual worlds in chemistry higher education

This post examines some examples of the use of emerging technologies for chemistry education, focussing on the virtual world second life and web-based virtual platforms.

Second Life

Second Life is a virtual, online world where users can interact and engage with others while moving through a created virtual space. While perhaps better known for less than desirable uses, academic institutions are putting a lot of resources into creating Second Life spaces, including the Open University and DIT. Anecdotally, chemistry is sometimes given as an ideal subject to use in Second Life, allowing for anything from testing out reactions to showing spatial arrangements of atoms in molecules in 3-dimensions. A recent review of the use of Second Life and Chemistry outlined a number of proposed opportunities for using the virtual world in the teaching of chemistry (Lang and Bradley, 2009). These include visualisation of molecules (user enters the name of the molecule and it is rendered after referring to a database such as ChemSpider); visualisation of chemical reactions including bond breaking and making; docking simulations and more complex molecules such as peptides and proteins. Additionally, spectral visualisations and physical properties are available. the review continues with some teaching applications, which includes details of quizzes, games and student exhibits of work. Some details of research dissemination (including, heaven forbid, research conferences – see Welch, 2010) and islands (pre-designed locations in Second Life) belonging to ACS and other chemical organisations are described.

Second Life offers alternative means for visualisation, but to what added benefit?

One has to wonder, why? There’s nothing new in visualisations (and there is mixed evidence on whether 3D visualisations actually help students at this stage (Urhahne, Nick and Schanze, 2009)), and although the technology is clever and the graphics pretty, is this extra work and burden (getting students into Second Life) really worth it? In one study of students using augmented reality versus physical models, it was found that many students preferred interacting with the physical model (Chen 2006). It seems that the main additional outcome to a standard web platform is the social aspect of Second Life. An example offered was that students could seek out other professional scientists and interview them. However, while there is undoubtedly potential, I think as a practitioner there would be a lot more worthy resources that could be developed given the time.

Virtual Laboratories

Slightly less technological than Second Life, but along the same principles are the establishment of Virtual Laboratory spaces, where you can, in the words of one project, “mix chemicals without wearing safety goggles” (Virtual Chemistry Laboratory, 2010).  The Virtual Chemistry Laboratory are interactive simulations, clever Java based materials which allow the student to conduct experiments and see what they results will be. The advantage is that they can test out some different mixes or approaches as a dry run.

While there is nothing new in the idea of virtual labs, the technology is getting very smart. The Bristol ChemLabs Dynamic Laboratory Manual is an Articulate based flash interface which is really outstanding in terms of quality, interactivity and engagement, along with feedback. Its integration into the teaching programme really shows the power of these type of activities as pre- and possibly post-lab work, to for example reduce the cognitive load, allow for introducing meaningful post-lab further analysis and problems. The downside is that content of this level of sophistication costs an awful lot of money to develop, although to purchase content it is now relatively cheap.

These types of emerging technologies will undoubtedly be piloted in the future. Of most interest to practitioners will be the answer to the question – what added benefit does it bring to learning?


Chem, Y-C (2006) “A study of comparing the use of augmented reality and physical models in chemistry education”, Proceedings of the 2006 ACM international conference on Virtual reality continuum and its applications, available at: (May 2010).

Lang, A and Bradley, J-C (2009), “Chemistry in Second Life”, Chemistry Central Journal, 3, 14, available at (May 2010).

Urhahne, D, Nick, S and Schanze, S (2009), “The Effect of Three-Dimensional Simulations on the Understanding of Chemical Structures and Their Properties”, Research in Science Education, 39, 495 – 513.

Virtual Chemical Laboratory (2010) Available at:

Welch, CJ (2010), “Virtual Conferences become a reality”, Nature Chemistry, 2(3), 148.