Theses Doctoral

Exploring the Use of Virtual Reality As a Tool For Connecting Sub-micro and Macroscopic Chemistry Knowledge

Hu-Au, Elliot Matthew

Chemistry is a difficult subject for many students and often deters them from pursuing related careers or other paths of study. An obstacle that causes students to stumble is the comprehension of chemistry’s myriad abstract concepts. Strong visuospatial skills and modelling are required to understand the nuances of topics such as atomic structures, molecular behaviors, and others. Teaching tools like “ball and stick” molecule kits or virtual demonstrations are useful but have their limitations. Especially when presenting the connections between the macroscopic world and their abstract, atomic-scale representations (i.e., the sub-micro world (Johnstone, 1982)), there are few tools that have proven effective.

In this 2 x 2 between-subjects experimental study, a virtual reality (VR) laboratory simulation is utilized in conjunction with a sub-micro intervention. The timing of the sub-micro intervention (pre-lab vs. integrated into a specific point in the simulation) and the level of embodiment (physical manipulatives vs. VR) are the two independent variables. Eighty students (N = 80), ages 11-18 years old, from a local community center participated in this study, completing a pretest, the laboratory simulation, the sub-micro intervention, and a post-test. The pre- and post-test measures included multiple-choice, free-response, drawing questions, and an attitudinal survey.

Key findings were that integrating the intervention, no matter which level of embodiment, led to significantly higher gains in learning. The combination of using physical manipulatives and integrating them within the lab exercise demonstrated the most gains, although the VR Integrated condition also showed improvement. The VR Integrated condition also showed significant improvement in three out of the four drawing categories (i.e., molecule shape, atom quantity, and relative sizes), more than any other condition. The VR conditions also showed significant growth in positive student attitudes towards science, technology, and potential future careers in these subjects.

The implications are that while practically, VR may not provide enough advantage over physical manipulatives to replace them as classroom learning tools, VR is an effective tool to teach abstract chemistry concepts. It enabled students to perform better on visuospatial measures and proved to be highly motivating for furthering learning in science and technology.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-05-17.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Thesis Advisors
Okita, Sandra
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
May 31, 2023