Embedding Virtual Content into Physical Chemistry

Abraham Wolcott

Assistant Professor

Course Name & Description: Chemistry 160: Physical Chemistry; P-Chem covers fundamental topics in Thermodynamics, Kinetics, Quantum Mechanics and Spectroscopy

Project Abstract: Redesigning of Physical Chemistry at San Jose State University with virtual and augmented reality is needed to decrease DFW rates and increase learner outcomes. Physical chemistry courses are usually considered the hardest in the chemistry series because of the mathematics, abstract concepts and quantitative rigor that the class demands. Visualization tools coupled to physical models are the key drivers for this project and are expected to accelerate the retention and application of key objectives in the physical chemistry curriculum. VR googles and tablets have been purchased and are distributed to all students in the physical chemistry course. To create a custom VR environment, Prof Wolcott will use UNITY software to generate immersive curricula. 

Keywords/Tags: Virtual reality, augmented reality, thermodynamics, kinetics, quantum mechanics and spectroscopy.

Instructional Delivery: Hybrid

Pedagogical Approaches: Supplemental Instruction, POGIL and AR/VR

About the LIT Redesigning of Physical Chemistry 160 (Stage 1)

Background on the Redesign

Why Redesign your Course?

  • Physical Chemistry courses have inherent difficulties for learners because of the mathematics and abstract concepts that are covered in Thermodynamics, Kinetics, Quantum Mechanics and Spectroscopy. Recent statistics show a DFW rate of 27% for P-Chem 161A which covers Thermodynamics and Kinetics. Learners struggle to connect models that explain the physical world to the underlying mathematics which helps to quantify and explain empirical evidence.
  • Because leaners at SJSU are struggling with passing the course this is also delaying major-specific courses and graduation. SJSU has placed special emphasis on student success and decreasing the years to graduation is one of the main targets

High Demand/Low Success/Facilities Bottleneck Issues

  • Bottleneck issues are not at play in the physical chemistry course load. The issue that arises because 25% of the students retake the class is the potential to impact instructor:learner ratios and creating larger class sizes then expected. Typically class sizes are 70 students with the recidivism, but would be closer to 55 students had students not been retaking the course at its current rate.

Course History / Background

  • Physical chemistry is an upper division course in the CHemistry Department catalogue. Chemistry 160 or 161A/B is taken after organic chemistry and analytical chemistry. At SJSU, physical chemistry is prior to inorganic chemistry and is therefore a prerequisite for Chem 145 Inorganic chemistry.

(Upload syllabus from pre-designed course)

Chemistry 160

About the Learners and Instructors of Physical Chemistry (Stage 2)

Student Characteristics

  • Chemistry 160 is a physical chemistry course that is taken by biochemists, forensic scientists and food science majors. The prerequiste math course does not require linear differential equations and matrix algebra. For that reason, the level of mathematics and the depth of physical chemistry topics does not typically include advanced calculus.
  • Chemistry 161A and 161B is a physical chemistry course that is taken by chemistry majors and engineers. The math prerequisite does include

Advice I Give my Students to be Successful

  • Sucess in physical chemistry relies on three main tenets: 1.) Use of analogies and real world examples to demonstrate complex and abstract concepts 2.) Feeling comfortable connecting the mathematics in the course with models that support our physical world and 3) Working hard on the oral presentations, in-class exercises, virtual reality lessons and quizes and diligently completing the homework.

Impact of Student Learning Outcomes/Objectives (SLOs) on Course Redesign

  • In this course you will be able to:
  • Understand and demonstrate mastery of the 0th, 1st, 2nd and 3rd laws of thermodynamics
  • Use the concepts and mathetmatics to quantify changes in internal energy (U), heat (Q), work (W), enthalpy (H), entropy (S) and Gibbs Free Energy (G).
  • Understand and demonstrate rate laws and the concepts of k (rate constant), rate orders and the Arrenhius equation
  • Analyze data sets in a regimented fashion to extract the rate orders, rate law and rate constant
  • Understand and demonstrate knowldge about the fundamental concepts in quantum mechanics such as the photoelectric effect, blackbody radiation and the Bohr model
  • Understand and calculate values based on the Particle-In-A-Box model in both 1-dimension and 2-dimensions
  • Understand the fundamentals of spectroscopy
  • Extract fundamental properties of rotational, vibrationald UV-Visible spectroscopy
  • Understand and demonstrate the fundamentals of electron spin and magnetic resonance spectroscopies.

Alignment of SLOs With LIT Redesign

  • The use of virtual and augmented reality to enhance the learner outcomes in physical chemistry is based on having visual tools that compliment the abstarct concepts in thermodyanmics, kinetics, quantum mechanics and spectroscopy.

Assessments Used to Measure Students' Achievement of SLOs

  • How are you planning to assess the students' achievement regarding the SLOs?
  • What course activities are you planning to measure?
  • If you use an assessment rubric(s), please upload here.

Accessibility, Affordability, and Diversity Accessibility

  • The syllabus is mandated by SJSU to be pdf reader compatible and is for the sight impaired. This same program can also speak the content as needed for the hearing impaired.
  • Because the course uses VR based technology, students with phsyical disabilities may now conduct research which may of not been accessible previously. For example a person with limited mobility can now move easily through the VR laboratory and access to the lab is no longer limited.


  • Physical chemistry is a low-cost class and book purchases/rentals are ∼$30. By keeping this text the cost of the course was reduced from $200 to $30. This is in compliance with California bill SB-1359; Low-cost course material bill (The Donahoe Higher Education Act).
  • Fudning from ALS and TEAM grants were used to keep Physical Chemistry course cost below $50


  • San Jose State University has a very diverse student population in race, national origin, economic background and sexual identity. To compliment that range of backgrounds, physical chemistry provides content in a number of ways including:
  • Student led oral presentations, POGIL exercises, VR lessons, Canvas quizes and lecturing with powerpoint. Analogies, references to everyday experience and calculations are used to reinforce the content and present a clear connection between abstract concepts and their physical models.

Abe Wolcott

About the Instructor

  • Prof. Abraham Wolcott
  • Physical Chemist
  • BS and PhD UC Santa Cruz
  • NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at UT Austin
  • Joint postdoctoral scientist at Columbia University and MIT
  • Collaborator with UTeach Outreach (2009-2011)
  • Collaborator with Jay Pinson STEM Center (2015-Present)

Philosophy in Teaching: Teaching science should be as fluid and dynamic as the science itself. Science should remain relevent and practical to the experience of the student body. I discuss experiments that have importance to the biochemists, chemists and forensic scientists in phsyical chemistry. P-Chem has content that includes modern techniques such as ultrafast spectroscopy and high resolution transmission electron microscopy. The course is being taught in 2018 and not 1968 and must reflect the cutting-edge science which reinforces the curriculum. How is this important today? If the answer is not obviously clear then the instructor still has work to do.

Curriculum Vitae

  • Please see attached file

CV Abraham Wolcott

LIT Redesign Planning (Stage 3) — VR as a compliment to Kahn-Academy Videos, Oral Presentations & POGIL exercises

Implementing the Redesigned Course What aspects of your course have you redesigned?

  • The redesign of Physical Chemistry has entered into a new phase wherein having VR content implimented at home will be complimented by using VR resources in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library on the campus of San Jose State University. The King Library Experiential Virtual Reality (KLEVR) Lab has augmented and virtual reality setups that will be used in Spring 2019. The difficulty in converting a HTC Vive software experience into a Smart Phone compatible platform has been non-trivial and beyond my expertise. With assistance from Nancy Solomon (Engineering) and Jon Oakes (VR expert at MLK library) the use and build up of VR content will be more strategic and expandable. The outline will be to use a base platform in a VR laboratory to first address the Kinetic Molecular Theory of Gases in a UNITY platform for HTC VIVE and create a platform that will be customizable when multiple coders work on the project. The intended target UNITY code from VR lab programmer Ian Hunter was usable, but will be difficult to build from in many ways as explained by Jon Oakes. Jon has the expertise to dissect the poor architecture that was used and to advance into a new paradigm of building the VR experience.

Describe the class size(s) What technology is being used?

  • Physical Chemistry 160 and 161A are typically 40-70 students during the Fall and Spring semesters. The course is taken by Engineers, Chemists, Biochemists, Forensics Scientists and Food Science majors.

What professional development activities have you participated during your course redesign?

  • I have attended the online meetings produced by the LIT team and hosted by Ashley Skylar and others. During these meetings, experts in the use of VR and AR have given presentations on their work and how they have utilized VR as an educational tool.

Which Additional Resources Were Needed for the Redesign?

  • The resource that was required the most were on site VR experts at San Jose State University who have been in the field for many years. A critical analysis of my ideas and project by Nancy Solomon and Jon Oakes was essential and it was neccessary to make a long term startegy instead of a short-sighted set of VR goals. Now I will focus on VR content produced in for a full HTC VIVE setup and also incorporate z-Space augmented reality into the class. I will require students to come to the VR/AR space and receive credit for interacting with the technology and immersing themselves in chemistry and physics content.

(Upload your revised syllabus here)

LIT Results and Findings (Stage 4)

LIT Redesign Impact on Teaching and Learning

  • How has the course redesign strategies affected your instruction and your students’ learning? Did your redesign strategy solve the issues that motivated you to redesign the course?
  • Describe how your students mastered the student learning outcomes. Were the students more successful in the redesigned course than in previous courses? Explain.
  • Did you experience unexpected results after teaching the redesigned course? If so, what were they?
  • Consider attaching a more in-depth report describing the impact of your activities and experiences during the course redesign as a document/link/image. If possible consider including samples of students' work that reflect the impact of the redesign.

Assessment Findings

  • Use table and chart template to report course data (required).
  • Upload table and chart from your template (required) and reflect on your findings with a short description. You must include a course grades comparison of pre/post student achievements.
  • Share how your students achieved the learning outcomes? Describe how they mastered the learning outcomes compared to previous courses?

Student Feedback

  • What did your students say or how did they respond to the redesigned activities? Consider including your students' comments about their learning. Include survey results if you are able to capture them. Include student video feedback (optional).

Challenges my Students Encountered

  • What challenges did the students encounter in the redesigned activities? E.g., technical challenges, organization of course, and redesigned activities.

Lessons Learned & Redesign Tips

Teaching Tips

  • What advice do you have for others who might want to use this redesigned course?

Course Redesign Obstacles

  • What challenges did you confront and how did you overcome them?

Strategies I Used to Increase Engagement

  • What pedagogical strategies did you use in your new redesigned course to engage students?


  • How do plan to sustain the LIT redesign beyond the funding period?

Instructor Reflection

  • Reflect on your participation in redesigning a course, development of an ePortfolio, participation in CSU Course Redesign Professional Learning Community Share any plans to disseminate/publish the findings of your course redesign activity.