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2015 Spring ConfChem: Interactive Visualizations for Chemistry Teaching and Learning

05/08/15 to 06/04/15
Emily Moore, University of Colorado (

Conference Abstract:

Visualizations in chemistry education – animations and simulations – provide powerful resources to support students’ conceptual understanding, as well as the representational fluency needed to envision the particulate level world, communicate through chemical symbols, and make connections to the observable world. In this virtual conference we will discuss a range of topics in the study of chemistry visualizations, providing insights into: problem solving practices; student ownership; multi-model learning; and inclusive chemistry learning.

For more information, contact Conference Organizer: Emily Moore,
To participate in this free conference, contact Bob Belford,


Conference Schedule

May 8 - May 14

Insights into Molecular Visualization Design
Resa M. Kelly, San Jose State University, CA

Learning by Being: Playing Particles in the MeParticle-WeMatter Simulation
Elon Langbeheim, Arizona State University, AZ; Sharona T. Levy, University of Haifa, Israel

May 15-21

A Multimodal Examination of Visual Problem Solving
Sarah J.R. Hansen, Columbia University, NY; Felicia Moore Mensah and Peter Gordon, Teachers College, NY

Using an Interactive Simulation to Support Development of Expert Practices for Balancing Chemical Equations
Yuen-ying Carpenter, Emily B. Moore, and Katherine K. Perkins, University of Colorado Boulder, CO


May 22-May 28 

Research into Practice: Visualizing the molecular world for a deep understanding of chemistry
Roy Tasker, University of Western Sydney, Australia

The Cutting Edge: Educational Innovation, Disability Law, and Civil Rights
Paul Grossman, US Dept. of Education, Office for Civil Rights (retired), adapted by Emily B. Moore, University of Colorado Boulder, CO

May 29-June 4

Technological Challenges to Equal Access of the Virtual Laboratory Experience for the Blind
Cary A. Supalo, Purdue, IN

Designing Accessible Interactive Chemistry Simulations
Emily B. Moore, University of Colorado Boulder, CO


Conference Articles

Abstracts of Papers:

Elon Langbeheim, Arizona State University, AZ
harona T. Levy, University of Haifa, Israel


MeParticle-WeMatter is a participatory simulation in which students play the role of particles. The students navigate their particle in a multi-particle environment, as they are pulled or pushed by Lennard-Jones forces. We have used a quasi-experimental setup to study how participating as particles in this environment contributes to learning. The study focuses on an activity in which the students “heat” the particle fluid by colliding with the surrounding particles. 9th grade classrooms were divided into two groups: in one group students played the role of particles, and in the other group, students observed the simulation without participating as particles. In the paper we will report on the structure of the simulation as well as the learning gains for the two conditions.

Resa M. Kelly, San Jose State University, CA


The first customer that a visualization designer has to please is the instructor. Are you surprised that it is not the student? The instructor decides whether to use the tools and judges whether the animation will actually fit with his/her instructional needs, thereby determining whether the tool will even reach their students. However, the students are the ones we, as designers, want to assist in their learning progress and we ponder, how will we make the information in our visuals more meaningful? Both instructors and students critique animations. Instructors tell us when the tools lack accuracy in depicting chemical concepts, when the representation is too simplistic or in some cases too complex. In contrast, students tend not to critique the tools based on their accuracy, they trust that the designers are the experts and that they simply have to learn the concepts. Instead students tell us whether the tools are difficult to use, understandable or just plain boring. The purpose of this ConfChem paper is to share my experience with the design process and how I try to listen to the voices of both instructors and students to inform what is depicted. Finally, results gathered on visuals assigned in a naturalistic setting, as a pre-lab exercise, will be shared. 

Sarah Hansen1, Felicia Moore2, Peter Gordon
1 Columbia University Chemistry Dept., New York, New York, United States;
2 Science Education, Teachers College, New York, New York, United States;
3 Biobehavioral Sciences, Teachers College, New York, New York, United States


Understanding how students, particularly struggling students, engage with interactive chemistry visualizations is key to designing effective interventions using these tools. A multimodal approach for understanding how students tackle visual stoichiometry problems can offer an insight into the misconceptions and the difficulties students have. This mixed methods study combines eye-tracking, oral responses, drawings, algorithmic, and multiple choice questions to investigate how a group of college General Chemistry students solve stoichiometry problems in the PhET simulation “Reactants, Products and Leftovers”. Building from a combined quantitative methods of cluster analysis and principal component analysis of viewing patterns of a larger sample population, this deeper, focused investigation into the multimodal artifacts of two struggling students revealed a richer, more complex portrait of the students’ processes. The triangulation of student problem solving may help to identify key misconceptions, provide opportunities to target support, and ultimately increase performance and decrease student frustration.

Yuen-ying Carpenter, Emily B. Moore, and Katherine K. Perkins


The ability to balance a chemical equation is a foundational skill in chemistry, yet it is still most frequently taught traditionally, through explicit instruction followed by drill-and-practice. Using a guided-inquiry activity coupled with feedback from a PhET interactive simulation offers an opportunity to foster student development of this skill via an inquiry-driven approach. Here, we describe how student groups in a preparatory (pre-General) chemistry course make use of the Balancing Chemical Equations simulation to build increasingly expert-like practices with non-redox equation balancing. Student discussions during this process offer insights into the ways that multiple representations in the simulation – including symbols, molecular pictures, and balance scales – each facilitate different stages of student development. Finally, noting that student approaches to balancing vary depending on the features of the equation, we will discuss how instructors might select post-activity practice equations to scaffold student skill development.

Roy Tasker, University of Western Sydney


Most student misconceptions in chemistry stem from incorrect mental models of structures and processes at the molecular level. These mental models are often formed by misinterpreting the meaning of chemical formulas and equations.

The VisChem project ( ) was established to produce a set of molecular-level animations, portraying common substances and reactions, to target specific misconceptions in the chemed literature. With careful attention to detail in the chemistry, they need an experienced chemistry educator to point out the key features in the structures and processes represented.

However, we cannot simply show complex visualizations, which portray our expert mental models of this world, and expect novices to accept and apply them to understand chemistry symbolism and concepts. The challenge is to develop sequences of learning activities (called ‘learning designs’ – see for example), to prepare the minds of the learners, motivate them to care, show the animation with minimum cognitive load, and provide opportunities to apply what has been learned. Molecular-level visualization needs to be a sustained teaching strategy, not just an unconnected series of eye-candy experiences.

Paul Grossman, and adapted by Emily B. Moore


Paul Grossman, Chief Regional Attorney (retired), Office of Civil Rights, United States Department of Education, describes foundational cases in the history of civil rights in the United States leading up to the current state of disability law, and its relationship to educational innovation. As Mr. Grossman guides us through civil rights history, it becomes clear that we are all part of an historic moment in time. The rapid development of new technologies provides unprecedented opportunities to support the rights of all students to have equal access to education.

This paper is adapted from Mr. Grossman’s keynote presentation at the annual Accessing Higher Ground conference (, November 17-21, 2014 in Westminster, Colorado (with permission).

Cary A. Supalo


Too often students with visual impairments are marginalized in the science laboratory classroom thus limiting opportunities to fully access these experiential learning events. This is further illustrated in the total number of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) professionals with visual impairments. As virtual experiences, with their high reliance on visual interfaces, become more mainstream in the science classroom both at the secondary and post-secondary levels, access is limited even further.  Multi-sensory outputs are necessary in order for these virtual interfaces to have higher cognitive and pedagogical value.  It is hypothesized that multi-sensory presentation can enhance learning for all students. Students with visual impairments frequently use what are referred to as text-to-speech and/or large print interfaces. Innovation lies in the challenges in the non-visual access provided by text-to-speech interfaces. Properly text tagged buttons and other qualitative tone outputs can drastically enhance the quality of the experience for the visually impaired user. In these times of educational budget cuts, having accessible virtual learning experiences for students with visual impairments are beneficial to all learners and provide a cost-effective approach to fostering continued interest in STEM education.

Emily B. Moore


The PhET Interactive Simulations project ( has begun designing inclusive features into our new suite of HTML5 simulations. With 130+ mathematics and science simulations, including over 30 chemistry simulations – the PhET project aims to ensure that all students have access to these open educational resources. Inclusive features include: keyboard navigation, text-to-speech and auditory descriptions, and sonification. These features will allow students to engage with the simulations in multiple modes, with visual, auditory, and textual representations available, along with expanded options for input and output methods (keyboard, screen readers, etc.). These inclusive features have the potential of increasing the effectiveness of simulations for all students – including those with disabilities. In this work, we share our progress in inclusively designed PhET simulations, and highlight the design and implementation of keyboard navigation within a dynamic, interactive chemistry simulation. 


Bob Belford's picture

Hi All,

I was thinking it might be of value if we set up a thread where people could share resources. If you have created simulations that others can embed in either their online sites or use in their lectures, would you share a link with us now. Likewise, if you know of open access sites where teachers can download material, would you share the link by replying to this thread?
I will start off with the ChemCollective, which I have personally used for 15 years.
and of course, MERLOT (Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching), although their site appears to be down right now.

Bob's picture

Hi Bob,
This seems a good moment to mention ChemTube3D which uses the excellent JSmol to display chemical structures/reactions in 3D.

ChemTube3D contains interactive 3D animations and structures, with supporting information for some of the most important topics covered during an undergraduate chemistry degree.

ChemTube3D is an OER and so is free for everyone to use - staff and students.

It is in Merlot but very few people ever find it that way. It is not in ChemCollective.

Best regards

Bob, you did not mention Models 360 on the chemeddl page at Xavier Prat-Resina has kept this page up even though ACS has let many of the features of ChemEd DL die a slow death for lack of upkeep. There are JSmol structures for common crystal lattices and all of the elements. There are about 700 molecule for which you can display molecular structure, molecular orbitals, electrostatic potentials, molecular symmetry elements, and molecular vibrations. There is code supplied to paste a model into your own web page, but I am not certain that feature still works and I don't have time to try it. If anyone does try it, let me know if it works or not.

osrothen's picture

This is a nice resource. It looks like the embed uses the java applet, so I could not check it out completely. The embed iframe code looks OK to me, and the URL seems to load, but it's looking for Java. I suspect it works fine on browsers that have Java installed.

I did not play around with the query string. It may allow an HTML5 setting.

No big deal - the resource itself is great!


Bob Belford's picture

Hi All,

A colleague of mine in Israel asked me the following question and I thought I would post it to this final discussion and see if anyone has anything to chime in with.

"I'm looking for examples of students' interactions in VL [VL-Virtual Lab, read Simulation] that convey "creative" thinking, in the sense that the student's solution to the problem represented something new and novel that was unexpected by the teacher. Do you have any example of a question/solution that comes to mind?

Thanks in advance!!"


SDWoodgate's picture

In my situation where I monitor student activity/answers/wrong answers unexpected results are common. It is hardly surprising that what I think is easy is not always easy for the students.

An example where students have shown that they can be taken out of their comfort zone is in the drawing and understanding of organic structures. Organic chemistry is done to a significant amount in New Zealand high schools, but a very significant proportion of students do not move beyond drawing out structures showing all of the bonds to hydrogen. Recently we have added into our question bank questions which require the use of the JSME molecular editor to draw organic structures. This facility is limited to line structures. This is well beyond what New Zealand high school students are comfortable with, particularly as vi none of them would have used ANY organic structure drawing program. Much to my delight we are getting 65-70% first right where answering the question involves both interpretation (fthat is, iguring out the structure to be drawn) and drawing the structure.

One of the great pleasures of working on BestChoice is the extent to which students continually expose their willingness to give us advice about helping them to learn AND another great surprise is the coherence of the comments and the lack of text language, despite cell phone use being as extensive in New Zealand as it is anywhere else.

I've got some animations on my textbook site that folks have found useful in the past.

Bob - Thanks once a gain for all you do for us. You're a true super hero of the chemical education world.