Don’t break the magic!

Say hello to Alchemie’s Animator app

Chemistry is a tough subject to learn.

Students must understand how chemical particles move and interact without ever being able to touch or manipulate them.

Adding to this, students need to maneuver between the three domains of chemistry, relating what they see in the lab with the symbolic and mathematical representations of the particles.

Three domains of chemistry

For 20 years, I taught AP Chemistry and took great pride in my lab program and my students’ ability to solve mathematical problems. Their exam scores were solid, and they seemed to be able to discuss experiments in lab reports. But when the College Board shifted focus to a more conceptual understanding for AP Chemistry a few years back, I had to evaluate whether my students REALLY understood what we going on with chemical particles: ions, atoms, molecules.

I added particle drawings to both in-class and homework problem-solving assignments, as well as to assessments. Oh, students really did not like those drawings! Why? They had to think!

And I was not a big fan of assessing their work. It was very difficult to interpret student intent when evaluating static (and often very sloppy) drawings. (The student images below are very neat, by the way.)

Images of particle drawing problems

At the end of the school year, we took the particle drawings and created stop-motion animations, using white boards, clay, or whatever medium the student groups decided to use. It was a great project, inspired by a blog post from the Royal Society of Chemistry. The students still had to think, but it became a discussion-driven production, rather than an individual rendering. They had also already finished two years of chemistry by that time. One big problem was that the stop-motion videos took a few days of class to produce, and each group covered only one concept. Also, after producing a video, it was very difficult — really impossible — to go back and fix an issue with the particle animation.

Was it possible to build a mobile app that would allow students to produce particle animations quickly, so the animations could be used as part of regular discussion, as opposed to a year-end, post-exam project? Could these animations be editable from any frame? And then shared easily between students to encourage discussion and formative understanding?

I have been building chemistry apps for the last few years, with an amazing developer, Joe Engalan. We had been focused on organic chemistry game-based apps, but I had asked the above questions of Joe when he joined me full-time as Alchemie’s CTO in August 2016. I then went on a vacation.

When I came back, Joe had built a first prototype of Animator. It worked! In just a few minutes, particles could be put on the screen, moved, and they would glide smoothly between positions. It was magical! Joe was a chemistry app wizard!

The design pillar for Animator

We have continued to build Alchemie’s Animator and its cloud-based sharing platform throughout the fall. Whenever we test a new feature, we are guided by the early excitement of the first prototype, and this phrase on the whiteboard continues to be a design pillar for this learning tool, as well as for our other products. The app must be intuitive and easy to use. We have given it to youngsters to make animated designs which have nothing to do with chemistry. I even made a Christmas card with it!

The following is an animation of a typical AP Chemistry kinetics problem. There are two possible animations for this set of reactions. Even after decades teaching the material, I had to think (!) about what it really meant for the second step to be the rate-determining step versus the first step. What would that transformation and movement look like? How would it differ from having the first step as the rate-determining step?

More questions came to mind. Did Animator make the chemistry come alive? Were the particles of chemistry finally touchable? And what’s next?

We are currently testing Animator and its sharing platform at Michigan State and the University of Michigan. We will soon open testing up to others in a short-term pilot of the technology. We would LOVE to have chemistry professors and teachers join us. If you have an idea of a concept that would lend itself to “Animator learning” in the month of April 2017, we will design a 1–2 day lesson for you, and give you and your students access to Animator. There are many possibilities beyond kinetics: equilibrium, electrochemistry, molarity, net-ionic reactions, intermolecular forces, the list goes on. Yes, organic mechanisms and resonance, too. (I do go by @OChemJulie on Twitter…)

Feel free to say hello to Animator with a comment or an idea for us. Hope to hear from you!