Cape Town’s bid story

The City of Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014 was coordinated by the Cape Town Partnership, in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders and supporters.

Gaming the real world: Virtual chemistry lab for schools

How can chemistry lessons be cheaper for schools, while not being any less interactive or memorable for school children? Introducing the Virtual Chemistry Lab by Formula D interactive.

The Virtual Chemistry Lab is everything you'd expect of a conventional chemistry laboratory – just minus the laboratory and expensive (or explosive) equipment it requires.

How do you replace a chemistry lab?

The Virtual Chemistry Lab gets learners involved in a hands-on lesson on a 50" high definition rear-projected screen backed up by pattern recognition technology. The table comes equipped with circular cards held in containers on either side of the table, each representing objects and materials commonly found in a real chemistry lab. When a card is placed on the glass surface of the table, a menu appears around it, and turning the card allows the user to direct which function it should perform – for example, to turn up the heat of a Bunsen burner. Chemical reactions are simulated when cards are brought together.

A multi-sensory learning environment

The first Virtual Chemistry Lab Table in South Africa was handed over to the Nelson Mandela Bay Science and Technology Centre in March as part of a partnership between the chemical company BASF and the Uitenhage Despatch Development Initiative.

“Multimedia learning environments are more effective than traditional learning media such as textbooks, since they engage multiple senses simultaneously,” says Michael Wolf, CEO of Formula D interactive, the creators of the table. “This is proven to stimulate learners, while making learning content more memorable.”

For schools with limited space and resources, Formula D is adapting the design. “The support of BASF has proven that our concepts are on the right track to innovate education in South Africa,” explains Michael. “Our classroom edition is a smaller, mobile and a much lower cost alternative to the large table – and works with standard PC and computer or television screens.”

Letting children’s curiosity run riot

This virtual departure from conventional science labs allows children to experiment unsupervised to their curiosity’s content, Marco Rosa, the managing director at Formula D interactive points out. When updates are issued, they would be available via download from the internet.

“One card activates a microscope and shows an animation of what the particular chemical reaction looks like at an atomic level, and the end result. Chemical formulas will be far easier to understand through their graphic display.

“Another card enables a virtual teacher, which explains what is occurring through each experiment. So even if nothing happens while experimenting blind, children will understand why. They’ll get the chance to do stuff they would never do in an actual lab,” he observes.

Challenges and opportunities

A challenge of introducing any new technology into a classroom environment includes the fact that traditional computer interfaces aren’t suited to collaborative learning – often built for a single user.Technology is also approached with a level of suspicion in some areas, especially where teachers themselves haven’t been exposed much to computer technology. Along with a cheaper, more accessible learning environment, the Virtual Chemistry Lab presents an opportunity for schools to introduce sophisticated technology that doesn’t require the operation of menus, or a mouse and keyboard.

Want to find out more about gamification in Cape Town?

Start by checking out local design firm Formula D interactive online.