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What Can Students Learn from Virtual Labs?

Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt (Texas A&M University); Kurt Winkelmann (Florida Institute of Technology)

November 21, 2013 - November 23, 2013

The educational benefits of students performing simulated chemistry laboratory experiments in the 3D, immersive, virtual world of Second Life (SL) are being investigated at Texas A&M University by students enrolled in General Chemistry II Laboratory, with funding provided by a 3 year NSF grant. This fall, 90 students have completed two weeks of lab activities in Second Life while 400 other students complete the same experiments in a real laboratory. In Spring 2014, 100 students will perform SL experiments and over 2000 students will participate in the control group. This will be repeated for the 2014-2015 school year. 

 This project will answer the following research questions:

• How does the laboratory environment (Second Life or the real world) affect students’ ability to achieve the learning goals of the laboratory experiment, including content knowledge and kinesthetic skills?
• How does the laboratory environment affect students’ attitudes towards learning chemistry in the laboratory and performing laboratory work?

Our assessment methods include surveys, focus groups, pre/post lab quizzes, lab reports and a practical exercise in which student assemble parts of a laboratory apparatus. Differences in student outcomes due to academic background or demographic characteristics will be analyzed.

This study is the first to evaluate students’ learning and attitudes in a Second Life chemistry laboratory. If we find that SL experiments lead to better student attitude and academic performance in the lab, the information would be most useful for (1) designing new on-line distance learning science lab experiments and (2) creating a viable alternative for schools which do not offer chemistry laboratory courses.

Article PDF: 

What Can Students Learn from Virtual Labs?


Virtual worlds offer chemical educators an interesting new platform for faculty and students to interact in order to augment or even replace existing classroom and laboratory sessions.  Virtual worlds provide a visually rich, three dimensional environment in which users interact with each other and virtual objects.  Each user controls an avatar, the user’s representation in the virtual world.  By creating content for the world, educators can design new learning activities that would not be possible in the real world. 

Second Life is the mostly widely used and well known virtual world and is maintained by Linden Labs.  Users communicate with each other through audio using a headset and microphone or through instant messages and they interact with their surroundings by clicking on objects with the mouse pointer.  Access to Second Life is free (with some age restrictions for young users).  The success of Second Life is due to Linden Labs providing the platform for the virtual world but allowing users to create their own content (similar to YouTube maintaining the website but users uploading their own videos).  Users can write programming code within Second Life to create objects and control their properties using Linden Scripting Language, a language similar to C+ and JAVA. 

Second Life is not a game - there are no predetermined goals, scoring or inherent competition.  Instead, Second Life is designed to promote socialization, communication and exploration among avatars.  Second Life has its own economy based on the Linden dollar (L$), which users can exchange for real world currencies.  Users purchase Linden dollars so that they can buy items for their avatar.  Users can purchase land in Second Life (server space) in order to own and maintain their own section of the world.  Land owners can modify land features and control access to their property.  This is important to educators who might only want students to enter their part of Second Life. 

Use of Second Life in education is growing, as is the research showing its effectiveness.  Students can feel more comfortable attending class in Second Life compared to a real classroom.(1)  Since many students attend class online, Second Life can provide a sense of “presence”, which is important in distance learning classes.(2-4)  Many studies report that students respond positively to learning within virtual worlds when added to an existing course(2,5-8) and influences their grades as well.(6-8)  Educators in information systems,(5) computer science,(6) biology,(7) medicine(9, 10) and chemistry(11-15) have all used Second Life for their courses.  Two reviews explain how chemists use Second Life in the classroom.(11, 16)

Dr. Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt, project Co-PI, completed an extensive study of using Second Life to teach students about 3D molecular shapes and Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion (VSEPR) theory. She employed a quasi-experimental re-/post-test control group research design study on her two Texas A&M general chemistry lecture classes (a total of 480 students). The experimental group performed activities with 3D molecules in Second Life while the control group did the same activities using 2D images which were screen shots of SL images. Ultimately, she found that students working in a 3-D environment did show subtle but significant differences in increased student ability by the SL group for interpreting routine 2D presentations of 3D chemical structures using solid lines, dashed lines and wedges.(13, 14, 15, 17)

The Study

Although STEM educators use Second Life in a variety of ways, no virtual laboratory experiments are available.  More importantly, it is not clear how well such lab experiments might compare to real world experiments in terms of students’ learning and attitudes. 

A year ago, we received a 3 year NSF TUES grant entitled “Evaluating Students’ Learning and Attitudes in a Virtual Chemistry Laboratory.” The first year was spent developing assessment tools and two laboratories that were as identical as possible to two laboratories that were part of the curriculum in second semester general chemistry laboratory at Texas A&M University; we used two professional SL programmers in the development process. Our goals were to measure students’ attitudes towards the real world and virtual experiments, their ability to achieve the learning goals of both types of experiments and the students’ development of kinesthetic skills during the experiments.

Here is a link to a 20 minute video tour of the facilities:


Figures 1-3 show the Second Life environment.

Figure 1. The virtual laboratory building on Chemistry World Island


Figure 2. The virtual labroom.


Figure 3. Super-sized equipment for the first SL experiment behind Dr. Keeney-Kennicutt’s avatar

The lab experiments were designed to mimic as closely as possible the actual lab experiments. In Second Life, students assemble equipment and perform the experiment by clicking on chemicals and pieces of laboratory equipment, and use menus to select other options. They wear headsets with microphones to communicate with their lab partner and TA.  Students record their own data and their results depend on their actions, just like in a real chemistry laboratory experience. A student’s mistake in performing the procedure or inattention to details affects the experimental results. Although the mathematical equations that are a part of the experiment’s programming code provide perfectly precise results, the code also introduces a small degree of randomness into the results so that the data “looks real.” Just as in a real classroom, no two sets of data from the SL experiments are exactly the same. Students still have to read volumes in graduated cylinders, graduated pipets and burets. The first SL experiment, Experiment 2: Molar Mass Determination, involved collecting gas over water and the ideal gas law to determine the molar mass of the gas in a butane lighter. The second SL experiment, Experiment 3: Precipitation Titrations, involved 7 argentometric titrations, to determine the salinity of 2 San Antonio bay water samples at one location in the bay at two different times. Each pair of students had samples from a different part of the bay.  

Fall 2013 Pilot Study

This fall was our pilot study. Four experienced teaching assistants were chosen who would teach one section in SL and the other as normal. Their schedules determined which sections were chosen as the experimental group. On the first day of lab during week 1, students signed their IRB consent forms and took an on-line survey. Four sections (69 students) were in the experimental group and 19 sections (371 students) were in the control group. Here were the student demographics:




27% engineering, 18% education, 16% agriculture, 14% science, 11% biomedical science plus 14% in geoscience, liberal arts, business and general studies.


50% sophomore, 21% freshman, 18% junior and 11% senior

Semesters at TAMU:

30% less than 1 semester, 27% 2 semesters, 20% 3 semesters


98% 18-24 with 2% under 18 and 1% 25-34


56% female and 44% male


66% white (non-Hispanic), 15% Hispanic, 10% Asian, 5% mixed and 3% black.

Among other facts, we found that 99% of students had access to computers or laptops with 94% using them daily and 34% own or have access to a tablet.  The top 5 uses for computers are:  email, doing homework, using social media, watching videos and doing research. However, 87% had little to no experience with online virtual worlds. Training is critical for a student’s success in a virtual world. During week 1, the experimental group was introduced to SL on the laboratory computers. Each student created their avatar and was able to find their way within the program to the area where they would be professionally trained. Our trainer is located out-of-state. She and the co-PI met with 12 groups of students the following week within Second Life for a 30 – 40 minute training period to give proper lab attire and lab goggles to their avatars, teach them to read a buret and graduated cylinder, give access to the study area on the Chemistry World island and find the classroom. There is a learning curve to Second Life. Students need to feel comfortable controlling their avatars in SL, so they can concentrate on doing the experiment and not the software. As a note, the first lab was short, so students who missed training were able to get trained as well as complete the lab.

During week 2, all students did the first lab as normal. For weeks 3 and 4, the experimental group met at their normal time at a nearby computer lab and the control group met in their regular lab room to do the second and the third labs. See Figures 4, 5, 6, and 7. At the start of each period, all students would take a 5 question multiple choice quiz on the procedure. Then the TA either in SL or the normal lab would show a PowerPoint presentation explaining the lab and the lab would begin. As students finished, they would take the identical quiz again. During week 5, a practicum on the week 3 lab procedure was given to the 8 sections taught by the experienced TAs: 4 SL sections and 4 control sections. During week 5, the 4 TAs took an on-line survey and in week 6, they participated in a focus group. In week 8, the control group took an on-line attitudinal survey during lab and the experimental group took a lengthier similar survey in lab. At the end of the week, volunteers from the experimental group took part in a focus group. A subset of both the experimental and control groups took an additional on-line survey to help the assessment team better understand and interpret the attitudinal survey results from Week 8. The assessment team also received all student lab report grades for the two labs under study.

Figure 4a.  Prelab lecture in the SL classroom.

Figure 4b.  Prelab lecture in the computer lab.

Figure 5a.  TA giving prelab lecture

Figure 5b. Students listening to prelab lecture.

Figure 6a. Students in SL lab preparing to begin their experiments.

Figure 6b. The actual lab at TAMU

Figure 7a,b. Students completing Exp. 2 in SL.


Here are links to videos, demonstrating the Second Life activities in the computer lab.


Preliminary Results and Discussion

Here are some of our findings for the Fall 2013 Pilot Study:

No significant differences were seen between the SL group and the control group in

  • Bauer’s “Attitude toward Subject of Chemistry Inventory” (18)
  • Student lab reports
  • Pre- post- lab quiz for Experiment 2, the more straightforward gas experiment.
  • Practicum based on the procedure: collecting gas over water.  This was interesting since the SL group never handled the equipment.  However, a few students in the control group mentioned that they did not do part of the procedure; their partner did.  Since students work in pairs and divide the labor, half the students do not get hands-on experience on every part of a procedure. 

We did see some intriguing differences between the two groups:

  • There were significant differences in the pre- post- lab quiz results for Experiment 3, the more difficult argentometric titration lab.  The gain in score was 1.22±1.12 (N=78) for the SL group as opposed to only 0.50±1.07 (N=349) with p<2E-7 and Cohen’s d = 0.66, a large effect size.  We did not expect the SL group to do so much better.  Here are student comments to shed light on this finding.
    • In the second life, experiment process would be done only if you clicked the right button, which meant students had to think about the process carefully. So, the details in the experiment could stay in students' head longer than doing the real world experiment, because in the real world, students knew how to do but did not think about how to do.
    • The simplicity of the procedure on second life made me understand it very well. For me, I think instead of me worrying about doing the experiment 100% correct, I was able to focus on what all was going on in the procedure to get a better understanding of it.
    • I think it was because that in Second Life the program prompts you to perform tasks all the time, therefore making you reread the procedure over and over again. These repetitive prompts help to imprint the information in your head and allow you to fully understand the procedure better than the students reading the book once and performing the lab in the real world. I, personally, thought it helped me to remember the lab procedure very well and made me understand what I was doing a lot more than just performing the lab in the real world in the classroom.
    • I think that the students who performed Experiment #3 in Second Life rather than in the real world probably understood the lab procedure better because they got to do it in a cleaner environment. When I say this, I do not mean that the labs in the real world are dirty, only that they are far more daunting. The Second Life labs were cleaner and easier to understand in that each piece of equipment corresponded to one or very few functions in respect to the lab, whereas equipment and procedures in the real world forced students to make decisions based on a larger choice pool. In my experience, the Second Life lab was easier to understand because the briefing was thorough, the chemicals and equipment were prepared beforehand, and the equipment offered a list of choices rather than forcing me to make one up on my own. This way, we could focus on the importance and meaning of the lab, rather than hurrying to get it done while trying to not spill chemicals all over ourselves.
    • The fact that all the materials are laid out in front of you and the directions when you click on each material really helps. I think that it gives us a better understanding of how to do the procedures and helps us also to memorize how it is done. Also, it when the directions are given in that format, I for one felt like i was doing the experiment correctly instead of always second guessing myself when doing experiments in real life.
    • Using Second Life helped me understand the Experiments more than if I did the experiments in the real world. This is because having the materials and everything organized right in front of you and your partner made a lot easier to grasp everything because instead of focusing on if we are using the right chemicals or materials, you can focus on what you are doing and learning and what is happening during the experiment.  Also, this generation is more computer oriented so I think that helped with it, too. This is because since we liked computers we loved that we could do our labs on the computers instead of in the lab room, so we paid attention more while we were doing the experiment on Second Life.
  • We found differences in attitude toward lab from a survey based on the Inquiry Laboratory Attitude Survey (19), a semantic differential survey. 
    • In general, SL students found their SL experiments likeable, easy and quick to do.  They thought the SL experiments took less time and had better grades.  However, they thought they would learn more by doing the real world labs. Selected student comments:
      • SL labs are far less stressful than real world labs. In real world labs, students are very concerned about the lab procedures and being a good laboratory student (i.e. safety, not wasting materials, not breaking equipment, etc.). However in Second Life, students did not need to worry about these things because they were essentially removed from the situation. This allowed the student to focus more on the lab itself and its consequences rather than hurrying to get it done within the time limit. In SL labs, we were allowed to think critically as we performed the lab. In real life labs, all of the thinking was done later. The only drawback I see to this is that when students do the SL labs, they lose their care for being safe in the lab and conducting good lab procedure. But critical thinking, at least to me, is more important than the ability to pour an acid in a waste beaker rather than the sink.
  • I think that students found the Second Life labs more fun and easier to complete because of the virtual aspect of them. There was no mess, no inherent danger with chemicals, glassware, lighters, etc. and the clicking aspect of completing a lab was very user friendly. For example, when clicking a piece of equipment, the menu of available choices made the lab simple and user-friendly because it minimized user error and helped with the understanding of the procedure and possible options for that equipment. Although these menu options made the lab simpler, I do think that the Second Life labs lacked something that the real world labs provided, which is that they over-simplified the laboratory and made the experiment a clicking game instead of a hands-on discovery process. I think that the menu-clicking aspect of Second Life took the discovery, albeit the chance for mistakes, out of the experiment. The Second Life labs were more fun, faster, and sometimes less tedious than the real world labs though, because of the way it made the experiment feel like a game.
  • When SL student attitudes toward their SL and RL experiments were compared more thoroughly, it was found that they liked their SL labs and RL labs the same and thought they were both fun.  There were large significant differences between their attitudes towards SL and RL labs on ease and time for performing the labs, ease, effort, time and thinking/analyzing when writing lab reports with the real world labs being more difficult, taking longer and requiring more thinking and analyzing.  Selected student comments:
    • Students who did the Second Life Experiment enjoyed he lab more than the students who did the real world labs because since there was a TA and other students to help each other, the students were able to understand the lab and not be confused about the procedures. A lab becomes enjoyable when one can understand what they are doing. Since there is a TA and other people to help each other out during the lab, it makes the lab easier. The TA can help answer questions about the lab that students do not understand. Thus, an easy lab is an enjoyable lab.
    • The second life labs provided the same information about the experiments without the frustration of improper measurement of chemicals, setting up the lab, and cleaning the equipment. In second life, there were only a few functions possible whereas in real life experiments, there are an infinite number of actions with equipment. Real life requires extensive decision making, and therefore real world experiments are subject to greater error. In second life, students were only concerned with learning the chemistry concepts instead of being worried about making mistakes and incorrectly performing the experiment. The second life labs were also exciting because they were new and used technology which is more stimulating.
    • It was a whole lot easier on second life because it was all point and click work instead of the hard work in real life. Also help was just one click away and Bruno (the TA) appeared out of no where.
  •          On average, the SL students like the real lab experiments just as much as they liked their SL experiments.  This means that they liked their real world labs significantly more than the students who had only done real world labs.  In fact, SL students who said that they liked their SL experiments were 3.4 times more likely than the control group to say they liked their real life experiments, 2.4 times more likely to say they thought their real world experiments were easy, 2.0 times more likely to say they took less effort, and 2.2 times more likely to say they found real world experiments fun to do.  Selected student comments: 
  • Second life experiments are just as effective and enjoyable as the real world experiments because they are both hands on and makes learning the material from the experiment that much easier.
  • Maybe after doing the second life labs we were more excited about the normal labs because they were different. I think that adding a little variety to the lab made it more exciting for a lot of people. It gets pretty dull when you do relatively the same thing every day.
  • I think that the Second Life students better appreciated the hands-on lab environment after participating in the virtual lab environment. I think that this is because in the virtual lab experiment, I almost felt as if what I was doing, the experiment, didn’t actually matter or count for anything because it was all in a virtual environment. I felt like I wasn't actually making anything happen, just watching something happen on the screen in front of me. When I got back into the real world lab, I much more appreciated the live face-to-face interaction with my TA and my lab partner, actually touching and measuring and doing the experiments manually. I liked the Second Life experiments, but I liked the real world experiments much better because they were tangible and I felt like I was actually doing something and getting results instead of just pointing and clicking.
  • This could be because every student is different. Some like to be hands on and some don't. Doing a second lab may seem more work for students and they may not like that. Second lab experiments give me insight on the experiment and may be more enjoyable for certain students and not others.


The data is still being analyzed for this pilot study.  We still have the TA survey, TA focus group, the student focus group and their written comments to examine.  We hope to glean more interesting finding as we move forward with the study for 3 more semesters.


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2.  Sanchez, Joe “Pedagogical applications of Second Life” Libr. Technol. Rep. 2009, 45(2), 21-28.
3.  Feldon, D. F.; Kafai, Y. B. “Mised Methods for Mixed Reality: Understanding Users’ Avatar Activities in Virtual Worlds” Educ. Technol. Res. Dev. 2008, 56(5-6), 575-593.
4. Edirisingha, P.; Nie, M.; Pluciennik, M.; Young, R. “Socialization of Learning at a Distance in a 3-D Multi-User Virtual Environment” Brit. J. Educ. Technol. 2009, 40(3), 458-479.
5. Dreher, Carl; Reiners, Torsten; Dreher, Naomi “Virtual Worlds as a Context Suited for Information Systems Education: Discussion of Pedagogical Experience and Curriculum Design with Reference to Second Life” J. Info. Sys. Educ. 2009, 20(2), 211-224.
6. Wang, Yuanqiong; Braman, James “Extending the Classroom through Second Life” J. Inform. Sys. Educ. 2009, 20(2), 235-247.
7. Cobb, Stephanie; Heaney, Rose; Corcoran, Olivia; Henderson-Begg; Stephanie “The Learning Gains and Student Perceptions of a Second Life Virtual Lab” Biosci. Educ. 2009, 13, 1-9.
8. Hew, Khe Foon; Cheung, Wing Sum “Use of Three-Dimensional (3-D) Immersive Virtual Worlds in K-12 and Higher Education Settings: A Review of the Research” Brit. J. Educ. Technol. 2010, 41(1), 33-55.
9. Salmon, Gilly; Nie, Ming; Edirisingha, Palitha “Developing a Five-Stage Model of Learning in Second Life” Educ. Res. 2010, 52(2), 169-182.
10. Delwiche, Aaron “Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) in the New Media Classroom” Educ. Technol. Soc. 2006, 9(3), 160-172.
11. Bradley, Jean-Claude; Lang, Andrew S.I.D. “Chemistry in Second Life” Chem. Central J. 2009, 3, 1-20.
12. Lang, Andrew S.I.D. and Kobilnyk, D. C. “Visualizing Atomic Orbitals Using Second Life” J. Virtual Worlds Res. 2009, 2(1), 4-8.
13. Merchant, Z., Goetz, E.T., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., Kwok, O., Cifuentes, L., Davis, T.J., The Learner Characteristics, Features of Desktop 3D Virtual Reality Environments, and College Chemistry Instruction: A Structural Equation Modeling Analysis, Computers & Education (2012) doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.02.004
14. Merchant, Z., Goetz, E.T., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., Kwok, O., Cifuentes, L., Davis, T.J., (2013) Exploring 3-D Virtual Reality Technology for Spatial ability and Chemistry Achievement, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. 12 JUN 2013, DOI: 10.1111/jcal.12018
15. Keeney-Kennicutt, W.L. & Merchant, Z. “Virtual Worlds and Their Uses in Chemical Education” in Pedagogic Roles of Animations and Simulations in Chemistry Courses ACS Symposium Series 1142, Jerry Suits and Kimberly Pacheco (Eds). 2013; New York: Oxford University Press, pp 181-204.
16. Winkelmann, K. “Virtual Worlds and Their Uses in Chemical Education” in Pedagogic Roles of Animations and Simulations in Chemistry Courses ACS Symposium Series 1142, Jerry Suits and Kimberly Pacheco (Eds). 2013; New York: Oxford University Press, pp 161-179.
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Continuity of work...

This does not directly relate to the subject, but impacts anyway...


rjlanc mentioned in a recent post on this thread:

"Given that the Grad student has now completed and gone, my own enthusiasm has dropped and I am still wondering whether I will try to set it up for Lab in February next year."

For interdisciplinary and/or technology incorporation projects in an academic setup, is this a common situation? If it is, it indeed is a risk to go for projects of significant complexity, crossing semester boundaries. How is this risk handled? Don't funding authorities require an assessment of this risk in project proposals?

Thanks and regards


My take -

So, I am now half-retired at the good old age of 63.  It became very evident that I had to do this to manage this grant, since my partner, Kurt is several states away.  NSF took a long time to let us know that we were funded.  I hope that others will continue this work after I am gone.  I am toying with the idea (like others have done) to continue to pay for the island out of my retirement funds for a while after the grant is done - a not that expensive hobby (cheaper than a boat!).  NSF didn't ask us about this risk  I know that I personally felt the obligation to stay with the university to do this grant, as I watch my husband have a grand old time in his retirement travelling around the country and the world without me. 

Wendy  :)

Now that the official time

Now that the official time for discussion of the last paper has lapsed, I hope it's appropriate to make some overall comments.  On November 24, Wendy wrote, in part:

"So, I am now half-retired at the good old age of 63. .... I hope that others will continue this work after I am gone.  I am toying with the idea (like others have done) to continue to pay for the island out of my retirement funds for a while after the grant is done ...."

Which brings up a more general point about the longevity of Internet-based projects and resources. Eventyally everyone retires or moves to another position, and the next generation that replaces us may not be intertested in the same things.  This seems to me to be an opportunity for satisfying and useful post-retirement activity.  People are living longer and retirement may stretch into many years.  But the Internet gives retired researchers and educators a way to continue participation in a limited way, whereever they may live or travel and whatever time that may be willing and able to donate. 

When I retired in 1999, my University agreed to let me keep my email address and Web space on their servers.  I have since developed a site that distributes software tools for data processing and a tutorial that generates over 1000 hits a day and has resulted in dozens of citations in published research papers. I spend 3-4 hours each morning working on it. Of coure, more sophisticated work, like the Second Life Virtual Labs and 3D molecular reaction animations, presents greater challenges, but it would really be a shame to let work like this languish and an even greater shame not to have intellectually satisfying activity in retirement.

Wendy, the Eternal Teacher speaks through you...

...and touches the heart. But it also touches the mind which asks why an institutional project needs funds from a retired professor for its continuation. I am not familiar with the US scientific funding mechanism, but shouldn't the funding take into account continuity contingencies?

There is another side to it though, and a danger lurks there: technology platforms themselves are not stable and not all of them manage to keep pace with changing technologies. Projects that have already consumed a lot of effort cannot easily move to another platform--you have mentioned your programmers' views on this-- unless some planned procedure (e.g. stoppage of funding) compels it.

Thanks, regards, and best wishes,


project continuation

Our project involved the creation of 2 lab experiments in Second Life but that was note the ultimate goal of the project.  We want to better understand how students learn in virtual worlds and their opnions of virtual lab experiments.  Therefore, we hope that the answers we find for experiments in Second Life are transferrable to other virtual worlds.  The answers to those questions will be published and hopefully used by others to design their own studies.

SL users can save the content that they create so that it can never be lose as long as the user's free SL account remains active.  Because SL is so popular, any other virtual environment would probably want to make itself similar enough to SL so that SL users could transfer their content to another world.

off topic


even worse in small institutions with diverse interests when someone retires. I suspect all of my servers will be shutdown within a few years.

The only funding agency involved was my salary.... hence the use of cheap (often second hand) servers and free software and no money paid to Linden Labs.

Just think of how many web sites you have visited 6 months later to find they don't exist anymore

Not an ideal situation for sure.



Again, offtopic....

Could student chapters of technology associations like IEEE or ACM, or formation of Special Interest Groups open to students of all years and faculties help in this?


Absolutely amazing

What you have done here is absolutely amazing.  It seems like a very fruitful area for continued research.  So many questions remain. 

It seems to me that the average instructor could no more construct a virtual laboratory full of instruments and chemical stores in SL than they could construct a real one from scratch in the physical world, so SL laboratories and their scientific instruments will continue to have real value. Perhaps in the future such facilities will be available for purchase or rent (presumably at much lower prices than real physical versions), at least for research purposes. 

One can only wonder how future developments in tactile feedback and fully-immersive virtual reality may bear on this. 

Thanks for this mind-expanding work.


Thanks, Tom.  That is so true.  As a part of our NSF grant, we are making this equipment for our two labs and programming available to researchers for free.  I still have to talk with our programmers to get a version that we can pack up and pass to folks.  Also it will be possible to  allow instructors and students to use our equipment on our off-times.  This i9s a part of our broader impact.  Adding tactile feedback in the future would be amazing!

Wendy  :)

Second Life and Blender

Long ago when I was working on  a cheminformatics project, I had toyed with an open source tool called Blender. It provided for 3D modelling, and was highly programmable. I was very happy with what it could do for me.... And it was already being used for scientific visualization...

I played around with Second Life yesterday and wrote a few scripts. Looks easy, but I am sure there is devil in the details...

Something reminded me of Blender and I searched for the two tools together on the web. It seems thare are lots of projects using both of them...

Apparantly Avatars are being created in Blender and exported for use in SL.

Kurt, Wendy, have you evaluated Blender while developing Virtual Labs?

http://www.blender.org/ is the homepage for Blender.

http://www.bioblender.eu/ builds upon Blender for life science applications.




I've heard of people using Blender in connection with SL or another open simulation environment.  I don't do any programming in SL so I can't evaluate how useful it is.

That brings up a point worth emphasizing.  Educators don't have to know their discipline, how to teach and how to program.  They can collaborate with programmers to create content within SL.  We've found that arrangement to be very productive.

Other Open VL/VW Environments

Kurt (Wendy or anyone else),

You mention you have heard of Blender being used in connection with Second Life (SL) or another open simulation environment.  What other environments are there?  I am slightly familiar with Project Wonderland that Robert Lancashire developed a few years ago, which apparently used Blender along with multiple other programs, http://wwwchem.uwimona.edu.jm/WL/ .  Are there other Virtual Worlds (VWs) that chemists have developed material in like SL?

I just took a peak at openwonderland's blog, and see other disciplines have been doing stuff, like there is a VW for learning English as a second language (ESL lab)
http://blogs.openwonderland.org/ . That leads me to wonder, do you know of any interdisciplinary VW collaborations, in SL or other?  If there is a SL ESL island, and a chemistry island, where a bridge could be built?  Many graduate students in chemistry are non-native English speakers and a VW where they could learn English in the context of chemistry could be of value.  It could take advantage of avatar-mediated social interactions where grad students of common languages could assist each other.

It just seems to me that avatar mediated social interaction is a strength of Virtual Worlds like SL, and if extended to interdisciplinary interactions, could provide platforms for both education and discovery involving "real time" collaborations that would be hard to accomplish in the real world.

Anyways, I would be most appreciative for any information on other Virtual Worlds, and especially projects related to chemistry.




Chemistry-related projects

Hi, Bob - I entered SL in Dec. 2008.  Back then SL was exciting and my edicational institutions were getting involved in SL places.  Chemistry was championed by Jean-Claude Bradley at Drexel and Andrew Lang from Oral Roberts.  Andrew was one of the developers of the ACS set of 4 islands, where all things chemistry were shown.  Many universities had spaces in SL.  Then Linden Labs decided to end the educational discount for buying islands (server space) and renting space. And so many institutions gave up their space and everything they had developed.  This was when open sims became very popular.  Texas A&M luckily had contracted at the discounted rate for 3 years and was able to keep its large space - 12 islands - until the educational discount was reinstated.  We relish being a part of Second Life because there are so many interesting places.  Our programmers also prefer SL programming because other open sims are so glitchy (their words). In my area on the corner of 12th man island, I was able to save many of the free items that were being given away on the ACS island, and keep much of what Andrew and Jean-Claude had developed - at least as what was applicable to general chemistry.  Hopefully SL willo get its second wind.

I have not investigated ESL islands, however, there are many many international SL areas and I know that teachers and students have gone to those places to learn other languages.

Wendy  :)



just to make the comment that I was not a developer of Wonderland but had a student work on some nice features to be able to create 3D models of molecules from MOL files into the Google Earth format that was used. Likewise we were able to create Spectra as objects for the Virtual World by using Blender to extrude the 2D XY spectral plots into 3D objects, so that a Vis spectrum could appear as a hill or slide by giving the Z-axis some width. (Looking at a spectrum along the z direction)

We had  summer students use Google Sketch to create a GC/MS, spectrometers and a GOUY Balance (for magnet moments) in the Google Earth type format as well. (These are still freely available from the Google repository)

The Gouy experiment in our 2nd year Inorganic Lab traditionally takes about 3 hours to obtain the magnetic moment for 1 sample due to the cleaning and washing and drying in between packing the Gouy tubes etc. The simulation we had could be done in under 10 minutes and we could work with a group of 10 quite happily. Students were introduced to the instrument in the lab and then moved to a computer lab to run the simulation

The difference between Wonderland and SL for us was that we ran our own servers and all Intellectual Property remained on campus rather than given to Linden Labs. It was possible to have several PC's running Linux set up as servers and you could jump from one world to another via a sort of Star Wars teleport (we had a Dr Who Tardus as a teleport at one stage). 1 cheap PC as server could cope with about 10-12 connections before slowing down and since it was behind the campus firewall only our students got access.

Once Oracle took over Sun, the development of Wonderland initally slowed but it has now been replaced by Open Wonderland with some of the original developers still involved ( I am out of touch since I have not looked at it for some time).  Coding for new experiments was done in JAVA.

Given that the Grad student has now completed and gone, my own enthusiasm has dropped and I am still wondering whether I will try to set it up for Lab in February next year.


Virtual World portals to Real World Informatics?

I am sort of asking two related questions here, one sort of being addressed to Bob, and the other to Kurt and Wendy, or anybody familiar with Linden Labs. These both deal with prudents way to host virtual world sites, and broad roles they could play in science and education.

Is it true that Linden labs gets Intellectual Property (IP) Rights for stuff built there? I thought if you paid for an island, you owned whatever you built, although I do see how its very existence is  connected to Linden lab's existence. But that said, Linden lab's servers will not disappear because a professor retires, (but their work would disappear if they, or their school stoped paying Linden labs). Now this scenario does lead to an IP question, if you stop paying Linden Labs, does all the work disappear, or are they able to archive and keep it? If so, what can they do with it? So what are your IP rights, and Linden labs?

Instead of hosting Wonderland on a real server, can it be bundled into a virtual server and hosted through a cloud service like Bluehost, which the CCCE uses for development work? This scenario might enable a community of users to host it. Are you able to extract spectra from databases, or are they preloaded?  If the former, can virtual worlds become portals to real-world cheminformatic databases?


cloud server


no experience with this, but saw a note in a forum about successfully using a Linux virtual server at  https://www.linode.com/ so I guess it could be done.

To move a spectrum from a database into Wonderland would need some thought since a 2D object like an IR or UV/Vis would not be visible from all directions. This was why we used a method to extrude in the z direction to give the spectrum some width.  Essentially we took a JCAMP-DX file, and exported it as an SVG file and imported that into Blender to do the extrude and export the file then to work with Wonderland. The conversion of a MOL file to a Wonderland object required a couple of steps as well.  Jean-Claude Bradley and Andrew Lang have more experience with displays of spectra for SL.

The IP questions I see have been answered already...

ownership of SL content

Your question led me to learn more about Linden Labs' Terms of Service.  Recently, they changed the TOS so that Linden Labs now has the right to use any SL content.  The content creator also has rights to use the content.  Obviously, many SL creators are upset about this though there haven't been any cases where Linden Labs exercises their rights.

Linden Labs may keep a backup copy of content for accounts that have been losed or cancelled.  This would be a nice feature for anybody who regrets leaving SL and wants to come back later.  I do not know if they offer this service..

The SL Licensing terms & conditions...

... did seem deterring and inconsistent with what usually  applies to academic work. I wonder, Wendy, Kurt, whether using SL was consistent with the terms of the NSF grant. I hope it was so. A friend was a benefactor of a part of an NSF grant and his terms mentioned that all work must be kept in the public domain... which caused a giant corporation to back out of the project.

Linden Labs ToS are

Linden Labs ToS are consistent with NSF grants since the creators of the SL content also own rights to distribute, share, collect royalties, use, etc. any content that they create.  Linden Labs also has these rights.  The TS does not restrict how a creator can share any of his/her SL content.

The SL Licensing terms & conditions...

... are quite different from most other software, and naturally so considering that it is a different kind of software.

Wendy, Kurt, did you or your institution's legal experts go through the terms in detail? Is there anything there out of common experience that users need to specifically worry about?

Thanks and regards


Legal Issues

Hi, Milind - no, our legal experts didn't bother, not that I asked them to.  Texas A&M and its faculty own a total of 12 islands, handed primarily through our IT people and have had no issues with Linden Labs to date.Wendy  :)

Very interesting and inviting indeed....

... and also safer and non nauseating.

I am not sure I have understood the concept fully, so my questions might be irrelevant. Advance apologies for that.

Could you give us some idea of the time (so many clock hours over so many calendar days) needed for designing a known experiment in second life?And the skills needed?

Would having a TA conduct the real-life experiment simultaneously (with proper arrangements) inside the computer lab(or a specially designed hybrid lab) help?

Would simulating the unclean, unhygenic and unsafe aspects of experiments in a real world chemical lab (with proper e-precautions) within the SL experiments help?

How do you weave in real-life timing considerations in SL?

Can electronic nose and odour/aroma generation tools (available on the horizon) add value? After all identification of infamous smells is (or is it was?) an integral part of learning chemistry. So I suppose would be identifying colour and texture.

With Kinect, e-nose, aroma generation, controlled fume generation, this could soon get into the virtual Reality realm. And there we can also incorporate the importance of dexterity and avoidance of wastage.

I suspect a major problem would be in retention of what is learned, because it is not sufficiently differentiated from other animated environments like games... but I am speaking without experience.



Response to Very Interesting and Inviting!

Hi, Milind - thanks for your interest.  Your questions are not irrelevant at all.  A newbie without programming experience in SL would have a very hard time.  I have been in SL for several years, and I only do simple things.  We hired 2 outstanding programmers and they did a great job.  Part of the issue is that very few programmers have chemistry backgrounds.  Our main programmer for the labs, Random Cole (avatar name), did remember some of his chemistry and did a good job.  However, that was because Kurt worked with him at every stage and it took a few months - not sure of the exact hours.  Kurt can speak to that.  I don't think that having a TA do the experiment simultaneously would add significantly to the students' understanding.  They "got it" pretty quickly.  Simulating unsafe aspects of experiments is doable - and could be added in the future.  However, one of our objectives is to see if students are hurt in any way by doing labs in SL, and it appears to be a guarded "no" and in fact there are benefits.  As for timing, that is worked out in the programming.Adding smells is interesting.  The labs we picked didn't need that.  Hmmmm - interesting.  I am not very familiar with Kinect.As for retention, from the student comments, they claimed they retained more in general from the SL labs in general, because they weren't distracted by the chaos of a real lab, by having to clean up, assemble their equipment, etc.  They could simply concentrate on the lab itself.  As for long-term gains - my guess is that students would retain material the same, irrespective of SL or real world labs.  That comes from teaching gen chem students for 30 years. (LOL)  Wendy  :)

Reply to Milind

Hi Milind,

Good questions!

We hired programmers to perform the programming of the experiments.  (BTW, I strongly recommend hiring professionals, especially the ones we used.  Contact me for a reference.)  Therefore, I don't know how long it took them to make everything but it wasn't quick - maybe a couple of months (though I don't know if that was full time work) for each experiment and the island itself.  Programming in SL is performed using the Linden Scripting Language (LSL) which is similar to Java and C+.  I don't program so that's about all I know.

Yes, we did need to perform the experiments so that the programmers could model their behavior.  I first performed the experiments in my real lab.  We recorded video and took pictures to send to the programmers.  They don't know any chemistry so I had to explain everything, from the appearance of a beaker to what happens at the titration endpoint.  I also had to distill the outcome of the experiment down to mathematical equations which control the behavior of the virtual chemicals.  Wendy took pictures of her gen chem lab so that we could create a lab room that was similar to the one at Texas A&M so it would be familiar to students.

For the sake of thoroughness and realism, we did require students to add goggles and a lab coat to their avatar's appearance.  It might seem silly since it's virtual but creating a more realisitic experience and environment can help students immerse themselves in the virtual world.  Likewise, if students do something unsafe in the virtual world, I think their avatars should suffer the consequences.  I would not want students to learn bad habits in a virtual lab then transfer them to a real lab setting.  Having said that, students were limited in their actions that they could perform within SL so there were no opportunities to perform unsafe actions.  However, there were consequences for not performing the procedure correctly.  if they forgot to add an indicator, they would never figure out when they had reached the endpoint of the titration.

If I understand your question about timing correctly, then I would say that timing is something that can be an advantage in SL.  I've watched students perform experiments in a real lab and they spend a lot of time standing around, waiting in line to get some stock solution or waiting for their hot water bath to heat up.  Those delays can be eliminated in SL.  Every student can have a carboy of stock solution and hot plates can heat up in a minute.  That might not be realistic but it saves time so that students can perform more chemistry.  That's up to the designer of the experiment since timing is built into the LSL coding.

I am interested in the next generation of commercially available virtual world technology.  Things like aroma generators and Kinect could add to the realism of what educators are doing in SL.

Retention of what was learned is a challenge for any type of class, real or virtual.  If students feel that their expeirment is more of a "game" as well as an assignment, they might spend more time playing it and learn more just because it was more enjoyable.  Again, as with real experiments, that depends on the quality of their experience.

Best wishes,


Thanks, Kurt,

(and Wendy, of course) for the answers.

My question about timing was a little different: I intended to ask about the actual real-life timings, say, for a heating experiment.

Also, I am afraid I did not word another of my questions properly. I was wondering if it would help having a suitably designed hybrid lab where while students are working on SL, the same experiment is being performed live by a TA.

I am an inept programmer. Maybe one day I will try my hand at programming Chemistry on SL.

One question: is localization/internationalization (at least the voice part of it) easy on SL?



My thoughts

Hi, Milind - the timing is handled through the programming and can be done easily (for a programmer, that is).  Congratulations for being a programmer!  The last time I did any was in Fortran in 1969 (LOL).

You could do what you are saying with a hybrid lab.  If the students say had never done a titration before, it would be useful for them to see a real buret, turn the stopcock etc.  to gain that kinesthetic knowledge.  Our students had all done titrations before, so that wasn't an issue for us.  As for voice - it is easy in SL - you do need a headset with a microphone - but I got ours very inexpensively - less than $10 each.

Wendy  :)


Hi Milind,

Since the behavior of any object in SL is controlled by the programming that created it, experiment designers can speed up or slow down reactions.  This could save students a lot of time if they were performing a very slow reaction or we could make a fast reaction occur more slowly so that students could observe intermediates that form in the reaction.  It all depends on what the designer and programmer do as they create the experiment.

Performing an experiment live while students perform the same experiment is SL would probably help students, though we would have to be careful that the SL and real experiments matched each other exactly.  Otherwise, students might get distracted or confused by any inconsistencies between the two versions.

People can communicate using headset microphones or by text in SL.  As long as people spoke or wrote in the same language, communication would be easy in SL.


Thanks, Wendy and Kurt,

... and I last touched a burette in 1980.

I am afraid I am not asking my questions properly: About audio, I meant if there is any voice-over audio attached to some Avatar, can I change it by, say, having a recording in Japanese. For example in the 20-minute video, if Wendy-the-Avatar were to be made to speak in Japanese (assuming Japanese text/recording is available), would it be possible for end-users to do so through some configuration? I am afraid the question is still clumsily worded.


hmmm - Japanese

There are translators within SL to translate from one language to another - I'm not sure how they work - if they just work in "chat" or by voice.  I'll checkWendy  :) 


The translator works with Chat, not voice....  Sorry.Wendy  :)

Kurt and Wendy, Thank you for

Kurt and Wendy,

Thank you for this interesting article. I am very excited in the prospect of high-quality virtual labs, and I had the following questions for you:

a) Did you have any students with disabilities in your groups (students who require more private environments for testing etc)? If yes, what kind of feedback did you receive from them?

b) Do you think that giving students a similar virtual experiment as a prelab, and then let them do a real wet lab (in a hybrid-type of course) would be a better option? Do you think that the real lab (after the virtual prelab) would run smoother, faster, and with less equipment breakage? 

c) Can you comment on the limitations of using a click-and-drag model, versus kinesthetic sensors (something like Kinect)? I am developing with some colleagues virtual labs based on Kinect, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on something like this - could kinesthetic algorithms be incorporated with your platform on a common project?

d) One question I received with my project was: Can we make this look and feel like advanced computer games (i.e. World of Warcraft or something like that). How possible would that be in second life (could you add detailed polygons) and make it virtually 3D?

e) Can this be made into an app? (I see that you're asking on how many students have tablets) 

f) Can you incorporate videos and other visual aids to help the students connect the macroscopic observations to the microscopic events? I think that would be very useful.

g) Have you thought of adding adaptive followup questions for different experimental mistakes students do?

h) I heard in the video that the students note down in their lab notebooks the measurements. Have you thought of using a virtual lab notebook (either in the form of surveys or as simple online forms)? I think that this would make this go long-distance pretty quickly. If it was mentioned, I appologize in advance if I didn't catch that.

Sorry for the many questions.

I loved this work, and I am excited to see what will happen with this field. In this funding environment it is very hard to move forward if the funding agencies don't realize the quality of these virtual labs - and I believe "the more the merrier".  Maybe it's time for NSF to start thinking of investing in an interdisciplinary center for virtual chemical education, and we should all start pushing the limits of limited budgets (i.e. TUES not announced etc.). I would urge everyone to start this conversation with their program officers - maybe this will travel up the ranks in NSF and others.

Thanks again and I look forward to your responses.



Reply to Christos

Sorry, everyone - I just got out of class.  Christos - let me answer these one by one.  So glad you liked what we are doing.  It is the first time (to our knowledge) that the exact same lab was done in the real world as in the virtual world with the same TA, so that a good comparison could be made.(a) No one had physical disabilities.  However, everyone knows that we are getting more and more students coming to university with Aspergers syndrome - on the autism spectrum.  He had real issues with taking SL labs - he thought he would miss out, so we let him take the makeup labs, which we in the real world.(b) I definitely think that doing this as an asynchronous prelab would be a great way to make the in-lab experience more productive.  The nice thing about doing the SL lab as a real lab is that the students can still work in partners, the TA was there to help, and I was there for technical issues.  Unless students have experience with SL, there are alwas technical issues at first.  (c) Using Kinect is a wonderful idea - it's just far beyond my capability.  At least with SL, we can use university computer labs and students can use their own computers.  The issues then just become access to band width and good graphics cards.  The feedback from the students were mixed on the menu driven program. Some liked it because it helped to guide them in what to do next and would catch any mistakes (like closing the balance door before weighing) which would probably go unnoticed in the real lab.  Others wanted a greater ability to make mistakes and learn.  We had many pre-med types in the labs.  Students in SL didn't have to worry about rinsing glassware or clearning up.  (d) If you use a powerful computer, you can push the look to being more natural and 3D.  Go into preferences and change that.  In the computer classroom, we had to work at the low end to reduce drag.  The requirement for bandwidth is an issue and we were pushing the ability with 27 people logged in at one time.(e) At this time, SL is not available on tablets - not enough computer power.(f) Yes, we can - if you look at my SL site, next to Chemistry World island, I have many molecules and molecule building kit to help people see in 3 dimensions.  I talk about my studies in my ACS book chapter.  It is possible to build more simulations relating micro and macro scopic views - all it talkes is time and $$.(g) Kurt did a great job of trying to anticipate errors that students make into the program.  But one cannot get too crazy or the programming won't be able to handle all the variables.(h) We thought about the virtual notebook, but we were trying to keep the experience similar to the real lab for the sake of our study. No problem asking questions, for sure.  Let me know if I didn't quite answer the questions as asked.Wendy  :)(d)

Thank you very much for your

Thank you very much for your answers.
I guess the issue of bandwidth can only be bypassed if students are not all logged in at the same time, but then staffing and technical support becomes an issue.

The prelab would have to be time-unlimited to work, so the students can take the time and figure it out for themselves (troubleshoot technical issues on their own, maybe with guides such as FAQs). If the projected outcomes are smoother lab sessions etc, then it might be worth implementing, for some extra credit or some other such incentive.

The other way to do this is to have this entire thing done offline (as a separate piece of software or java applet), in pairs or individually, with the option to record. Then the TA using some cloud storrage service like dropbox or the like would sit at home and have all the different recordings play in paralel screens. This would be an option for completely remote managment of the lab, even if the TA or instructor are in different timezones (LDL setups, or while traveling/sabbaticals/field work etc).

Thanks again for this work and answering the questions.




Hi, Christos - that's correct about bandwidth.  When I did my SL study on teaching students to see molecules in 3D, I did it asychronously - since there was no way I could have all 260 students in my experimental group in SL at the same time.  Actually only about 40 can be on one island at once, and depending on what the avatars are doing, it is less than that.  I spent a lot of time helping students in real life and in SL with building molecules and doing the assignments.  The prelab could be done outside of class.  Lab partners could go in together and learn how the lab would work.  One could assign TAs office hours in SL to help.  Students used to email me and then I would meet them in SL to figure out a particular issue.  I did find that making Camtasia movies of my avatar going through the SL activity did wonders for clearning up problems.  Again, thanks for your comments, Christos.  Wendy  :) 

Virtual Labs for AP Chemistry

I am also interested in studies that show the quality of the virtual labs. I teach AP Chemistry, and the approval process for teaching AP Chemistry (the audit) specifically did not allow virtual laboratory experiments to count as part of the required lab component. I wonder if enough studies such as this would change their minds.

I also wanted to ask about the learning curve. In the article, I believe you said there was one training session. Did you survey the students on how comfortable they were in the environment or how long it took them to feel like they understood what they were doing (not from a chemistry perspective, but just as an avatar)? Did it matter if they were experienced gamers or not? I would think that students who played a lot of role-playing games would have a significant advantage in learning by this method than others. 

Reply to echristophy

Hi, - I do believe that more studies cannot help but be beneficial. We tried very hard to control the variables so that we could tell if students were learning, what they were learning and how they felt about labs in general and SL labs in particular.  I do think some virtual labs are not detailed enough to compare well with labs in the real world.  Our labs in SL come very close to real world labs, we think.

The learning curve is a lttle steep for the students and the TAs who weren't familiar with avatars. There was a brief training during the first day of lab, where the students created their avatar, entered SL and found their way to the training area.  The real training occurred later, outside of class - which took about 30-45 minutes.  Here the students learned enough to get around, get the lab clothes, and control their viewer so they could easily read a buret and a graduated cylinger.  Of course the gamers, who were in the minority, took to SL faster, but by the second lab, all seemed very relaxed.  It was a good thing that the first lab was quick and easy, so students had plenty of time to become familiar with working in SL. 

We haven't had a chance to look at how students felt relative to their computer abilities as yet. Thanks for your interest!

Wendy  :)

reply to Virtual Labs for AP Chemistry

I think virtual labs would be a good addition to many high schools, especially those who lack the resources to maintain a good chemistry laboratory with equipment and chemicals.  We are hopeful that the results of our study and others will allow educators to make more informed decisions when determining the appropriateness of virtual labs for their students.

There is a learning curve for SL but I think the training session was adequate.  We also created some YouTube videos to help them prepare for the experience.  From my observations, it appeared that students understood enough of the keyboard and mouse commands so that they could perform the experiments.  We have surveyed students about their experience working in SL.  They did enjoy the virtual labs and some commented that working at a computer was a low-distraction environment compared to working in a busy chemistry laboratory room.  We did survey the students about how they used computers, including gaming but I don't know if we've analyzed those results yet.

Second Life and Reality

Dear Wendy and Kurt,

Thank you for an interesting article. One of the aspects of Second Life that particularly interested me was the potential to take the very smalll and make it appear much larger than life. I remember that IBM had a ball-and-stick model of a protein that was about twenty times as big as the avatar that represented me. I could 'tour" the molecule by flying through the various linkages and even sitting on some of the chemical bonds. There were also some large scale molecular models at another location in SL, which may or may not still be in existence. At the time, I wondered if seeing molecules on this scale changed the way that students adapted to the microscale world of chemical atoms and molecules, but i never had a chance to follow up on this. Have you experimented with any really huge-scale molecular models, and if so, how do the students react to them?

One of the problems that I encountered in Second Life was that stray avatars could wander into the classroom and ttempt to disrupt the class. Have you had any problems with this, or do you have your classrooms locked down so that only approved avatars can enter?




Hi, Harry - I thought I would put in my 2 cents.  If you look at my book chapter, I did a pretty big study (about 250 students each in the experimental and control group) using large molecules, to see if I could get students to see molecules in 3D when they see a 2D image - so important in organic chem.  The bottom line was yes, working in SL did help.  The reference is  15. Keeney-Kennicutt, W.L. & Merchant, Z. “Virtual Worlds and Their Uses in Chemical Education” in Pedagogic Roles of Animations and Simulations in Chemistry Courses ACS Symposium Series 1142, Jerry Suits and Kimberly Pacheco (Eds). 2013; New York: Oxford University Press, pp 181-204.As Kurt said, we did lock down Chemistry World, so that only designated people could enter.  They were given permission by joining a set group after training.Wendy  :)

Second Life and Reality

Hi Harry,

I have not used molecular model kits in SL but I agree that they would be helpful for visualizing molecular structure.  I do know of educators who build proteins but experience problems when the number of objects (i.e., atoms) becomes too large.  I've always thought it would be educational to walk through a gigantic biological cell and see every all of its parts functioning.

Our island in SL is closed except for our students and instructors.  That prevents troublemakers and curious visitors from interrupting the students' experiments.  Wendy and I have thought aobut having an "open house" to show people what we've done but, since this is our first semester of offering the SL lab experiments, we haven't had time to organize it.

Best wishes,


Effect of Avatar?

When you organize that open house, I would love to come. I find this very interesting and would love to go in this direction myself. 

How do you think this experience compares to something like Pearson's Virtual Chem Lab (http://esminfo.prenhall.com/vcl/#what_is) which is very real-world looking, but does not have an avatar? Do you think that actual feeling of being there and manipulating objects (even virtually) changes their perception/learning? 


Reply to Effect of Avatar?

I think that an avatar can have a beneficial effect because it can help students feel immersed in the experience, rather than just using some software program.  A student can customize the avatar's appearance so the avatar is an extension of the student.  I don't know how much of a benefit this imparts but the sense of "presence" or immersion in the virtual world is known to be important, especially for distance education since the students have no physical contact with their classmates or the instructor.


Strengths and Weaknesses

Dear Wendy and Kurt,

I’d like to ask you to comment a bit on strengths and weakness of Second Life Virtual labs as compared to both wet labs, and other virtual labs, although I realize you can only comment on other virtual lab environments that you have experience with. But in a general sense, what are the strengths of Second Life labs, and what type of lab activities would be best there? What are the weaknesses of Second Life labs, and would types of experiments would not be best there?

It seems that avatar mediated social interactions would be a strength and Second Life would provide an ideal platform for distributed cognitive activities in guided inquiry based experiments.  For example, I did not see a chart of temperature dependence of the vapor pressures for water in the lab of the video, and if that was present, maybe the students could deduce that the pressure above the water was not just due to butane, but also water. Can each student be given a different set of tools (and instructions) on their lab bench that they bring into the actual lab? If so, could this be a way of distributing tasks within the lab and inducing social interactions? Can Second Life lead to exploratory types of interactions?

I also have some specific questions.  Can you monitor and record student activity while they are in your lab?  Is there a “virtual commons” where they [read their avatars] can go after lab to work up lab reports and find resources (like vapor pressures of water)? When are the lab reports due?  Right after class?  The next class?

It seems like you have a great envrionment to do a lot of things. Are there opportunitites for other schools do develop activities in your environment?

Thanks again for this paper.
Bob Belford

Reply to Strengths and Weaknesses

Hi, Bob - Like all virtual labs, students are not putting their hands on the equipment and doing kinesthetic learning.  Some of the TAs in the focus group were concerned that in SL, students weren't able to make the kinds of mistakes they could in the real lab and learn from them.  They also weren't asked as many questions in SL as the real lab - I think because the menu driven program was guiding them like a real TA would do.   Also, students didn't need to assemble their equipment in SL, rinse glassware, and clean up.  Strengths include ability to work with a lab partner and the TA is within calling distance, both in SL and in the computer lab.  Of course, there were no real chemicals being used.    However, other issues are that SL requires decent bandwidth and graphics cards.  Only about 30 people can be working at the same time on one SL area, called an island.  So converting Texas A&M University general chem labs to SL would be a real problem, since we have up to 12 sections in lab at a time.

During the lab, the students had the vapor pressure/temperature table in their lab manual.  We tried to make the experience as much like the real lab as possible - with the students still using their lab manuals.  During both labs, the students worked with their lab partner to divvy up the duties just like in their real lab.  In fact, in the second SL lab, each group did the salinity in March and April in a different geographical location in San Antonio Bay.  Then they shared their data - but not in SL. 

For your specific questions, we do monitor their activity while in either lab, but it isn't recorded.  This is possible, but it was outside the scope of this study.  There is a virtual commons - just outside the lab, but only have the computer lab for 3 hours, and so we must leave.  All the resources they need are in their physical lab manuals which they bring with them.  Lab reports are due the following week at the next lab period. 

As for other schools participating, we are willing, but no one has asked.  Glad you liked it.<P>Wendy  :)

reply to strengths and weaknesses of SL labs

Hi Bob,

I have not taught using virtual labs like Late Nite Labs or Virtual Chem Lab but SL does allow students to interact with each other and work together within the virtual world.  In our study, lab partners sat next to each other in the computer lab (both working on separate computers) but they could be located around the world and still be lab partners in SL.  Another benefit of SL, which addresses your last question, is that the platform exists and is maintained by Linden Labs.  If faculty want to teach in SL, they just need to develop the educational content but they don't need to create a whole virtual world.

Strengths of SL labs:

Compared to real world labs, SL labs have no chemical waste to dispose, no equipment to purchase or maintain and no chemical safety concerns or limitations.  Experiments can be more creative since everything is virtual.  Students can pretend to analyze Martian soil for signs of life or work with radioactive samples in a virtual lab.  Students could perform SL expeirments asynchonously without the instructor being present and at any time of the day or night.

Weaknesses of SL labs:

The SL platform requires some training for students and instructors.  Although results of our first experiments in SL showed that students learned to manipulate glassware as well as students in the real lab, there is probably some limit to how much "hands-on" skills you can learn in a virtual world.  Costs of developing virtual experiments is not trivial, though once developed they can be reused indefinitely.  You can't smell anything in SL.

In the butane experiment that Texas A&M students performed in SL, they did have to adjust the pressure due to water vapor.  They had that information in the lab manual, just as they would if they were performing the experiment in a real lab.

It is possible to design exploratory/discovery/inquiry experiments in SL but the outcomes would need to be known to the developers and programmers beforehand so that they could create all the possible outcomes.  This could be a challenge from a programming perspective, depending on the complexity and variety of different options that students follow.

Yes, you can track student actions in SL.  Each mouse click can be recorded in a database that the instructor could review.  We didn't pursue that option since the lab instructors were already going to be in SL and in the real computer lab with the students but our programmers said it was possible.  This could lead to a ton of data (25 separate actions for 25 separate students performing the experiment) so I don't know how useful it would be.  In our case, students completed worksheets that they turned in after class.

Virtual vs. Wet Lab

Dear Wendy and Kurt,

First, I would like to thank you for this very interesting paper on your virtual laboratory in Second Life, and also comment that I found your 20 minute video worth watching.  I will confess, at first I did not think I would spend the full 20 minutes to watch the entire video, but I did, and I think the reason is because of the avatar. That is, through watching television we have become conditioned to a form of passive social interaction were movie stars effectively become pseudo surrogate friends, and I thoroughly enjoyed your avatar giving me a tour of your lab.

There are so many questions I would like to ask, most dealing with social interactions of avatars, but I am going to step back and ask a very broad question, which is a question I think I have been asked by every department chair I have ever worked for. Do you see this [read virtual labs] as potentially leading to a phasing out the wet lab from general chemistry?  I am trying to get to the deep down objective of your work. Is this one of your research objectives?  To enable schools to offer general chemistry without a wet lab? Please realize I am not asking about the immediate work, and there are many asepects of your immediate work I hope we will get to discuss. But deep down, where do you see your research leading to? 

Some day, will I find myself telling my chair, "Skip the wet lab, get an avatar, go to Second Life, and your students will learn more chemistry"?

Thanks again for this provacative paper.

Bob Belford

Virtual vs. Wet Lab

Hi Bob,

Thank you for this opportunity to share our research.  I've enjoyed reading the interesting articles and discussions that preceeded our paper.  I'm glad that you enjoyed the video - Wendy did a great job preparing it.

You ask a very good question that Wendy and I have discussed often and it's a question that my colleagues have asked many times also.

A virtual environment provides a new way to teach a chemistry lab.  The questions we should be asking are: what can and cannot be taught in a virtual lab?  How can we design the curriculum so that students get the most out of a virtual lab experience?  These are some of the questions that guide our project.

Real world lab experiments will always have their place, especially for chemistry majors who need thorough training with laboratory equipment.  Initial users of virtual labs will be distance learners and students' whose schools cannot afford to offer a high-quality (or any quality) lab course.  Schools may replace one or two of their existing wet experiments with better virtual experiments. 

Our purpose should be to teach chemistry in the best way possible.  Of course, that depends on what our goals are for students to achieve - an appreciation of chemistry, hands-on lab skills, etc.  If virtual labs offer a way for them to learn more than performing a wet lab, then we should support that.