By Caroline Cole
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced UW–Madison’s in-person instruction online in 2020, undergraduate and graduate research students encountered a massive obstacle in their learning: How would they perform their research if they were unable to go into their labs?
Michael Aristov, a 5th-year graduate student in the Berry lab in the Department of Chemistry, pivoted to another one of his interests when the pandemic impeded his research. He decided to build augmented reality models to aid chemistry education.
Using his knowledge in computational chemistry to construct the molecules and with a secondary program called Chimera, which helps visualize chemistry orbitals, Aristov began building 3D models of chemical structures and molecules. He used the program Blender, a free 3D modeling software that can create animations, and decided to house the models on Sketchfab, a browser-based platform that allows you to store 3D models and animations for free.
The library currently consists of about 196 models and more 3D structures are in the process of being proofed, Aristov said.
The project kickstarted after Aristov observed that many undergraduate Chemistry students used smartphones, offering the opportunity to leverage 3D technology that will eventually allow students to see chemical structures in augmented reality. In other words, students can easily load the 3D models through the Sketchfab application, which works well for use on course websites, Aristov said.
The virtual reality models were helpful in substitution for physical models and test cases in wedge-and-dash drawings, Aristov said. The first few models were basic molecules to emphasize that chemical structures can bend and twist, but after learning more about 3D modeling, Aristov created more complicated molecules such as those with double bonds.
Before these models, Aristov had no experience with Blender and learned about the program primarily from YouTube tutorials, he said.
“It was a massive learning curve,” Aristov said. “Since then, the more you do something the more comfortable you get with it, and now I’m quite familiar with Blender and proud of some of the things I can make.”
After learning more about each program, Aristov presented his models to chemistry instructors, including Professor John W. Moore, Dr. Brian Esselman, and Dr. Steven Block. Due to Sketchfab’s ability to export the models as embed code, which allows a 3D model to appear after inserting HTML code into an online text, Moore’s online open-access research textbook used the models.
“We did not want links in the textbook, where a student would click [the link] and it would open in a new tab or a new window because that breaks the flow of students’ learning,” Aristov said.
Aristov credits Moore with getting the ball rolling on the models, as he guided him on which models were important to include in the textbook.
“I thought that [the models] were great because there are certain kinds of things that we want to show that you cannot do with 2D images,” Moore said. “Even if you build a physical model with balls and sticks, you cannot do certain things because the physical world does not allow you to. For example, you can’t superimpose two molecular models, but you can superimpose two images of molecular models to see whether they are the same.”
Professor John Berry, Aristov’s PI, also offered his support and enthusiasm for the shift in focus during the pandemic.
“This project was purely Michael’s invention, and it’s a perfect blend of his chemistry expertise with his interest in 3D modeling,” Berry said.
To expand the scope of the project and to receive input from chemistry educators, Aristov set up an outreach system to receive requests from high school chemistry teachers and college professors. The system included posting in the “Strategies for Teaching Chemistry” Facebook group, a collection of over 5,000 chemistry educators across the globe, Aristov said.
This outreach is a continued effort – even after the group wrote about the library and their findings for the Journal of Chemical Education, Aristov reached out to a popular chemistry educator Dr. Joseph G. Manion, who also runs the CG Figures YouTube channel. He specializes in creating video guides on how to use Blender to create figures and animations for scientific manuscripts, Aristov said. Manion created a video about Aristov’s work and posted it to his YouTube channel with nearly 4,000 subscribers and extended Aristov’s invitation for more 3D model requests.
In the future, Aristov plans to take his learnings to advance the accessible, free, and high-quality materials that chemistry educators can use in classrooms, which was one of the reasons he chose to store these models on Sketchfab.
“SketchFab can be used entirely browser-based. You don’t need a powerful computer to run it, you don’t need archaic software, and you don’t need students to have a certain degree of technical literacy to be able to extract the files and load them,” Aristov said.
There are three major projects in progress to continue to build out chemistry education materials, Aristov said. First, he is working on similar 3D models but for crystallography. Since crystals are highly complex 3D structures, these models can display the complicated spatial symmetry that frequently gets lost in standard 2D projections, Aristov said.
In addition to the crystallography models, Aristov wants to mock-up advanced chemistry instruments that are available in the Chemistry Department. Aristov’s eventual goals for this project include transporting these models into augmented reality so that the instruments can “come to life” for students, he said. Finally, Aristov is planning a series of augmented reality models for research-grade interactions, such as 3D research posters.
“I believe that students will get a lot out of these models based on their degree of interactivity,” Aristov said. “For some students, learning about modules in a two-dimensional sense can be enough to advance their learning.”
However, Aristov said that his motivation is to reach the students interested in a deeper learning of course materials.
“You are always going to have a student with a certain spark and curiosity to know more, and to peer under the page to see what is underneath,” Aristov said. “[The models] let these students express their curiosity by giving them everything.”
Aristov emphasized that the library is ever-growing, and educators’ input is vital to the library’s success. His team is still looking for model requests from professors, teachers and students. If you would like to request any 3D models from Aristov, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.