Virtual Reality in General Chemistry

Monica Lares

Assistant Professor

Course Name & Description: Chemistry and Biochemistry Learning Community (Quantitative General Chemistry)

Project Abstract: Our goal is to use these virtual reality headsets along with the Sama Learning courseware to increase our ability to help students conceptualize abstract concepts that may hold them back from engaging in general chemistry and decrease the DFW rate and increase the number of students pursuing degrees in the STEM fields. We also anticipate that students who have traditionally been less successful in STEM classes to be able to interact with the material (with this courseware) in a way that supports them towards mastery.

Keywords/Tags: General Chemistry, virtual reality, SAMA Learning

Instructional Delivery: In general chemistry lab or on student's own time (they can visit the Virtual Reality Lab at Sonoma State University)

Pedagogical Approaches: Active/Inquiry-based Learning and virtual reality

About the LIT Redesign (Stage 1)

Background on the Redesign

Why Redesign your Course?

  • General chemistry is a bottleneck course 
  • These GE courses have a high D, F, W rate
  • Several topics covered in General Chemistry are abstract
  • Often students do not engage with chemistry because of these abstract concepts and instead lean toward biology or kinesiology where there are more relatable ideas 
  • All of these sciences are based on these abstract concepts and even some of the more concrete concepts could use virtual reality to engage students

High Demand/Low Success/Facilities Bottleneck Issues

  • Students who want to repeat for grade replacement have to go to the back of the line to retake general chemistry, and generally we do not have room in that class, thus creating a bottleneck of students who fail General Chemistry
  • Undeclared students that want to be biology majors often wait 1-2 years before they are allowed to register for general chemistry because of the impacted nature

Course History / Background

  • This course is designed for our first year chemistry majors.  It has a critical thinking course that is taken concurrently.


About the Students and Instructor (Stage 2)

Student Characteristics

  • A little more than 50% of our students identify as female
  • 42% of our students are underrepresented minorities
  • Typically students taking this course are full time first year students
  • Some students come into this class with a strong desire to do chemistry and with a strong math foundation; however, there are several students who have forgotten or have holes in their foundational algebraic knowledge and therefore a great deal of effort is required for these students to be successful in Quantitative General Chemistry; also some students have defaulted to the Biochemistry major because they couldn't declare Biology or Nursing as a major, as those are impacted majors and therefore require certain levels of math readiness; this default to Biochemistry typically does not work out favorably for the student
  • students are naturally curious so much success is seen when we teach topics with an inquiry-based or active learning approach

Advice I Give my Students to be Successful

  • On the first day of class we fill out an expectation worksheet.  On this sheet are expectations I have set for the students as well as expectations I have set for myself.  There is also space for the students to set expectations for themselves and expectations for me (the instructor).  I review the expectations they have written and acknowledge any that stand out and I also address any unrealistic expectations.  Overall, the emphasis is that their learning is their responsibility.  
  • Throughout the semester, I remind them of all the resources they have available to them: supplemental instruction, one on one tutoring, tutoring from our emeritus faculty, office hours, their book, and each other! I make sure to post the supplemental instruction hours and location at the top of our online site.  After each exam, I ask them if they have utilized all their resources.
  • Constantly remind students they are responsible for their learning- if they don't understand the material as it is presented, then they need to advocate for themselves

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

  • write a balanced chemical equation for a chemical process described with words
  • Calculate masses and moles of reactant and products using stoichiometry
  • use atomic orbital theory to describe the structure of an atom
  • describe properties of elements using periodic trends
  • determine if a molecule is polar or non-polar (VSEPR)
  • exposure to Molecular Oribital Theory
  • determine hybridization of carbon atoms in molecules

Alignment of SLOs With LIT Redesign

  • The SLOs described above were chosen because the virtual reality lessons that will be incorporated in this redesign directly relate to these topics

Assessments Used to Measure Students' Achievement of SLOs

  • In order to assess the success of the redesigned course, we plan to conduct pre/post knowledge survey (developed by Ed Nuhfer, CSU Channel Islands:
  • We will also reach out to colleagues at CSU Chico to understand the original assessment activities conducted for Sama Learning
  • We have also developed a rough Google Form (
  • During the fall semester, one of the virtual reality lessons was offered as extra credit; next semester, for the redesign, students will be required to complete five virtual reality lessons

Accessibility, Affordability, and Diversity Accessibility

  • Some VR apps are compatible with Voice Over and other screen readers.  The Sama software does read the content of each lesson out loud.  However, students are asked to carry activities and I am still not sure how this will work with students of various abilities.  
  • Grants are currently allowing us to offer these virtual reality lessons at no cost to the students


  • Grants are currently allowing us to offer these virtual reality lessons at no cost to the students


  • VR enables a radical departure from traditional STEM education in many useful ways. For students, the ability to visualize and manipulate 3D visualizations of otherwise abstract STEM concepts is significant and illuminating. Conceptually, the approach is well founded in the educational psychology literature indicating that multiple means and modalities for conceptual representation expose different facets and aspects underlying a core concept. The ability to view and manipulate electromagnetic fields and electron orbits, scaffolded with active learning and problem-based learning provides students supported significant advantages over traditional instruction in terms of fundamental understanding and increased student success.

About the Instructor

  • Instructor: Monica Lares
  • I earned my PhD in Biochemistry from UC Santa Cruz, where I was first introduced in inquiry-based teaching/learning
  • In between finishing my PhD and starting my post-doctoral fellowship, I taught a chemistry course at San Jose City College 
  • I worked as a post-doc for three and half years in the lab of Dr. John Rossi at the City of Hope
  • I am beginning my seventh year at Sonoma State University in the chemistry department
  • I like to use a mixture of lectures and active learning strategies in my class
  • The grades students earn in my class are not solely from exams; I like to include group activities, frequent reading quizzes, and reflection assignments

Curriculum Vitae

LIT Redesign Planning (Stage 3)

Implementing the Redesigned Course 

What aspects of your course have you redesigned?

  • Our current lab schedule begins with a one hour discussion.  Often this time is needed for students to complete the lab.  Other times this discussion is used to do an activity to support student learning of topics covered in lecture.  Sometimes students rush through activities and rush through lab in an effort to get out early.  This is unfortunate since they are missing out on valuable time with their instructor.  
  • We are using this discussion time (when the lab activity allows) to have students complete a virtual reality lesson before they start on their lab activity.
  • Perhaps if students are provided an opportunity to engage with the material in a different manner, their interests would be piqued, and they would be more invested and persistent in their academic endeavors.  

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

  • My lab class currently has eighteen students enrolled.        
  • We are using Oculus Quest standalone virtual reality headsets along with the Sama Learning courseware to increase our ability to help students conceptualize abstract concepts that may hold them back from engaging in chemistry.
  • Sama Learning focuses on creating high-quality VR simulations and courseware
  • The Sama VR Learning platform includes reporting feedback for instructors to monitor student progress and outcomes and provide suggestions where additional instruction would be beneficial.
  • We are using the following topics from SAMA Learning: Balancing Chemical Equations, Atomic Orbital Theory, Periodic Trends, Bonding (I) VSEPR, Bonding (II) Molecular Orbital Theory, and Hybridization.
  •  We anticipate that students who have traditionally been less successful in STEM classes to be able to interact with the material (with this courseware) in a way that supports them towards mastery.

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

  • Monthly check-ins with other members of the LIT cohort
  • In order for my institutional Review Board application to be approved I completed a Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI), which provided research ethics education.
  • I also participated in two training sessions with a developer from the software company

Which Additional Resources Were Needed for the Redesign?

  • In order to carry out this redesign, funding from various campus resources (Library and the School of Science and Technology) was used to purchase the 24 VR headsets as well as a cart to make them mobile around campus
  • Using funding from this grant, we were able to pay a student helper.  This turned out to be ESSENTIAL in successfully implementing this redesign.  The student helper was able to update all the software on the 24 headsets, trouble shoot technology difficulties, aid me in making videos, and transporting the headsets to and from my lab.  
  • The Sonoma State Faculty Center was also crucial in supporting me by helping develop assessment tools, working with the software company, and consulting with other campus partners (e.g. IT).
  • I was able to communicate with a colleague at Chico State, where SAMA had done their initial research.  It was very useful to get feedback and some pointers when using VR and SAMA with students.  


LIT Results and Findings (Stage 4)

LIT Redesign Impact on Teaching and Learning

  • Having VR in our General Chemistry course provided an additional way for students to interact with abstract concepts covered throughout the course.  With this being a pilot, there were lessons learned that will be utilized in the future to produce a more effective incorporation of VR.  
  • This was the first time virtual reality had been used in SSU’s general chemistry labs.  It is difficult to assess if the original issues leading to this redesign (high DFW rates leading to bottlenecks) have been solved.        
  • Investigating students’ attitudes towards learning and challenges were important to instructors as well.  We also looked at how frequently students utilized on campus resources, in an effort to measure students’ persistence.  Statistically significant conclusions were not made.  However, it has given the instructors more experience in this type of assessments.
  • Students could master the learning outcomes by:
    • Performing VR lessons during lab time.  
    • Going to the Virtual Reality Lab available to students outside of lab time, where they could go and repeat any of the lessons we did in lab.
    • Reading material before it was covered in class
    • Reading material after it was covered in class
    • Doing homework problems
    • Attending Supplemental Instruction sessions
    • Attending Professor’s office hours
    • Working with a tutor or Emeritus Faculty who volunteer for drop-in tutoring three times a week
    • Working in study groups
    • Attending and performing lab experiments
  • It is hard to assess if the students were more successful in the redesigned course due to the COVID-19 pandemic and as this was a pilot, our sample size was small (18 students).  

Assessment Findings

                Totals:         3      14    47     37    7
Student Responses in Pre Survey regarding mindset.

                     Totals:      3     17    37   40   11
Student responses in Post Survey regarding mindset.

              Totals:      10     18      13      6       7
Students responses in Pre Survey regarding utilizing campus resources.

              Totals:      12     13      16      7       6
Student responses in Post Survey regarding utilizing campus resources.

Knowledge questions were asked in the pre and post surveys; number of students answering correctly is shown in the table above.  Students were also asked to gauge their level of confidence in answering these knowledge questions.  Initially, what stands out is the number of students reporting "not confident" in the pre survey and how this number decreases in the post survey. 

Grade Distribution - Count (REQUIRED)

Spring 2019 Pre Redesigned Course N=16Spring 2020 Redesigned Course N=18
Note:  F and lower is Non-Passing 

Grade Distribution - Percentages (OPTIONAL)

Spring 2019 Pre Redesign Course N=16Spring 2020 Redesigned Course N=18
Note: __F_ and Lower is Non-Passing 

  • Even though we did observe that the DFW rate decreased (18% in 2019 to 5% in 2020), it is difficult to attribute that to the use of VR.  With the COVID-19 pandemic, there was more flexibility in our grading.  In addition, the sample size (18 students with 1 withdrawing) is too small to have a statistical significance.  However, this has served as a pilot for our chemistry department's use of VR for education.

Student Feedback

  • Some students reported that what they “liked best about this course was the virtual reality labs.” However, some students expressed frustrations with software.  
  • There was not an open ended question on the pre nor post survey soliciting comments from students.  That will definitely be included in future adjustments to this course. 
  • With shelter-in-place orders, I was not able to debrief in person as planned.  

Challenges my Students Encountered

  • Manipulating atoms and bonds within the software was one challenge for my students;  They got frustrated that they couldn’t get the bond to connect to an atom.  Eventually, I made a video of myself demonstrating this with tips on how to be more successful.  I would recommend a tutorial video for any future VR work or any tech that may be new to students.
  • Connections to the WiFi network was another challenge for the students.  After a software update had been made to the VR headsets, the headsets didn’t automatically connect to the WiFi network, which was necessary in order to log into the software to start their VR lessons.  Students began to take off the headsets, complaining that it won’t work.  I encouraged them to not give up so easily.  I had been playing with the headsets before lab and had encountered the same problem.  I knew what had to be done, but I really wanted to encourage their persistence and problem solving skills.  How quickly they were willing to give up alarmed me, and we were able to work through it as a class.  

Lessons Learned & Redesign Tips

Teaching Tips

  • Make or utilize existing video tutorials to show students how to work the software.  
  • Have alternative assignments.  Some students get motion sickness from the VR and some students just don’t like it.
  • Definitely have an assistant- especially the first day.  I had myself and an assistant for 18 students, that ratio worked well.
  • Check with your IT department to make sure there is a strong enough WiFi signal in which ever room you plan to use the mobile VR headsets and also enough band width to handle multiple users at the same time.

Course Redesign Obstacles

  • Students struggled to learn how to manipulate objects in the VR lesson
  • Fitting the VR into class time
  • Working with software still being developed
  • Strategies to overcome:
    • Have a student assistant that was knowledgeable in VR is absolutely essential for this project         
      • Student assistant was able to walk students through the initial set up of the VR headsets          
      • Whenever there was a software update, the VR software had to be uninstalled from all the headsets and then reinstalled with the updated software- the student assistant was able to do that as well
      • Student assistant also helped me to create a video of what the software looks like in the VR headset.  This is something I now realize we should have done earlier in order to show students how to manipulate the atoms and bonds in the software. I think this would have prevented some of the frustrations the students experienced.  Several of the students were frustrated with using the software and this distracted them from learning the material. 

Strategies I Used to Increase Engagement

  • I thought students were going to be more excited about using VR to learn chemistry.   They seemed to view it as one more thing they had to do.  Some were frustrated by the technology and had difficulty manipulating the atoms and bonds within the software.  A strategy I utilized to engage students was to emphasize how interacting with the same material in different ways can help them understand course material. 
  • I used class time to complete the VR lessons rather than having them go during their own time.        
  • The student assistant and I also circulated a lot while students were in the VR lessons.  If they got stuck, one of us was readily available to assist them- most of the time. 


  • With regards to sustaining the use of VR to provide students with another way to interact with course material there are currently two issues: the safety of sharing VR equipment and cost of use for the software. With the current social distancing measures in place, there will not be any use of the VR headsets allowed this Fall semester.  When the time allows, we can take the proper measures to ensure a safe VR experience.  
  • The software we used has a few minor details that need to be fixed in order to provide a clear and enriching experience for the student.  
  • We could approach VR as an accessibility issue in that it provides students with an additional way to interact with abstract concepts.  This could really help students achieve a deeper level of learning and therefore they may be more persistent in a STEM field.  Though we are not currently planning to use this same software in the near future, this experience has introduced us to the idea of VR for education.  

Instructor Reflection

  • Participating in redesigning a course has been a useful experience.  Through participating in this redesign I was able to connect with many people on campus such as IT staff, faculty center staff, other faculty on campus who have used VR, our campus IRB, and library staff who help run our campus virtual reality lab.  It also provided me with the opportunity to utilize the mobile VR headsets.  I was also able to connect with other CSU faculty utilizing different technologies and learn about all the creative ways they have incorporated it into their courses.  It also put me in touch with faculty at other campuses that are using a technologies that I want to use now that we are all online for the Fall 2020 semester, but I have not yet.  With this quick transition to online, this will be a valuable resource. 
  • I really appreciate the stages in developing an ePortfolio.  This has allowed me to consistently reflect and document my journey during this redesign.  
  • At this time, I do not plan to publish these results.  However, this Learning Community has allowed me to move forward and pave a way for a future publication.  I had never gone through the process for IRB approval, which because of my involvement in this LIT grant, I am now familiar with that process.  I had never made or analyzed a survey in Qualtrics and now I have done that.  This type of assessment is new to me and so I have learned how I can adjust this to make a more useful assessment in the future with a larger sample size.