In the classroom of the future
Three-dimensional images of molecules, chemical reactions, and processes float in the air: chemistry has become an adventure at Elsa-Brändström-Realschule, a high school in Essen, Germany, where students in the cyber classroom sponsored by Evonik Industries are more than just passive observers—they are quite literally part of the presentation.
At first glance it would seem that Ravi Frewer is trying out a new game on his console. His 3D glasses in place, he carefully moves the controller in his hand back and forth, while his classmates eye him both curiously and critically at the same time—as does his teacher, Andreas Roy-Werner. This is because the 15-year-old student is not in his bedroom, and he’s not maneuvering a cartoon character through a virtual obstacle course. On the contrary, he is sitting in a classroom at Elsa-Brändström-Realschule in Essen, Germany, and manipulating a three-dimensional pointer, attempting to create sodium chloride from the chlorine and sodium atoms on the screen. That, at any rate, is what the problem shown in the right-hand portion of the split screen indicates as it prompts Frewer to carry out the reaction in the function window. The chemical equation below the function window tells him whether he’s done it right. If he makes a mistake, the word "Reset" appears in red and he has to start all over again.
Roy-Werner quietly observes Frewer’s attempts. The virtual classroom itself is, after all, self-explanatory and intuitive. "And because it’s like their game consoles, the kids know how to work the whole system—often better than I do," laughs the chemistry teacher, who is also vice principal at the school. Even while he was only testing the system, he could see that the cyber classroom improved students’ motivation along with their understanding of chemical processes and reactions. "Because now, it’s easier for us to transition to the atomic world from the hands-on world of the laboratory."
Elsa-Brändström in Essen is one of four schools throughout Germany that have been equipped with this kind of cyber classroom station. In addition to hardware and software (and the 3D glasses required), the station also includes several newly developed chemistry modules. Participating schools have been and continue to be involved in ongoing development work. While Evonik provides support with chemistry issues, Visenso GmbH of Stuttgart, which developed the novel 3D teaching and learning environment, is carrying out the actual implementation. The process is important for chemistry teacher Roy-Werner: "This way we can integrate our own topics in the modules." A short video has already been incorporated into the module, for instance, showing steel wool being burned in the laboratory—an experiment that the virtual chemistry classroom can now take from the visual level to the molecular and theoretical level.
For the 600 students at Elsa-Brändström-Realschule, the cyber classroom is the perfect complement to their chemistry class, in part because the school only has one proper chemistry classroom. Another reason, however, is because the school is hoping that the program will make more students interested in and enthusiastic about chemistry. "Our school wouldn’t be able to do something like this—we don’t have the money or the infrastructure," knows Roy-Werner.
That makes him all the happier that his school was accepted as part of the Evonik-sponsored project, especially when he sees how his students have embraced the concept. Eissa Rashed Nasraalla has just taken his turn at the controller, and is rotating the three-dimensional ball-and-stick model about its axis. Even though he is getting along perfectly well, there is one thing he finds takes some getting used to: "Now class goes on pretty much without the teacher." He doesn’t think that’s a bad thing—just different and new. And for all of his enthusiasm for how the cyber classroom has enriched his class, Roy-Werner feels the same way. Reflecting on how quickly and easily his students learned to use the station, he winks and says candidly, "Fortunately it’s moving slowly enough that even we teachers can still keep up." The cyber classroom is the classroom of the future. And not just in chemistry.
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