Go here to view the orbital clouds that I describe below.
I didn’t really learn about Blender until about this time last year, and so I was still very new at creating 3D objects. Since then, I’ve been able to apply my hobby of creating 3D objects to my math and science classes just a handful of times. The two ways in which I’ve been able to share my work with students is through an Augmented Reality App on the iPad and through Sketchfab, a website that will use OpenGL to render 3D images. Both are very cool ways to view 3D objects, with the Augmented reality app being a little more hands-on for the students with a little more “wow” factor, and SketchFab being a little easier for me to upload my blender files and for students to access (doesn’t work as well on iPads because of Apple’s restrictions, but we got Chromebooks this year from grant, wohoo!).
The highlights have been:
- Examining ball & stick models of compounds in Chemistry (Augment)
- Using 3D objects to generate probability questions in Precalculus (Augment)
- Looking at 3D objects to examine the forces acting on a complicated system in Physics (Augment)
- Adding patterns to Fawn’s Visual Patterns website, Example 1 and Example 2 (Sketchfab)
Using 3D & Sketchfab
I used to stand up at the board and lecture on the Quantum Numbers. I’d draw the 3D objects which wasn’t terrible, but definitely didn’t help students picture things in 3D.  It was teacher-centered, lecture-based, and (no matter how excited I made it sound) boring.
So I decided to spice things up with Augmented reality. Unfortunately our network was being stupid and blocking everything related to the app, so I had to change gears and go with Sketchfab. I created several of the orbital shapes, orientations at multiple energy levels.
After uploading them, I embeded them on my website. Unfortunately you can’t embed iframes into wordpress.com websites, so you’ll have to go to my website to check them out. There are 5 pages of them, so don’t miss the other ones.
I gave my students a packet to work through (see below), which worked better than I had hoped! It involved students sketching various pictures, in addition to answer questions at checkpoints and requiring that they check with me before moving on. I was worried I’d be swamped, but the checkpoints are so easy to glance and say “yes” or “no”, that there wasn’t a big backlog. Students developed a sense of what the atom looks like, in addition to how electrons behave within the atom. The activity was student-centered and hands-on: much better than how I used to teach it. I overhead students struggling with and debating on the problems, asking each other what an “energy level” was and what “orientation” means. At one point students even sketched what they thought three different shapes, when put together, should look like in 3D, and could immediately check themselves by going to the next web-page.
I could definitely improve it in little ways, such as explaining that an orbital cloud at a given orientation means both sides of the p-orbital. Or I could better explain what an energy level is. And I didn’t like how I phrase the question where they’re supposed to “discover” where the numbers 2, 6, 10, and 14 are on the periodic table. But those were minor hitches that went over fine because I was constantly walking around answering questions.
The following day, we even had a great discussion from some of the students about a way to provide a “house address” for the electrons. A few students presented how they would give students a location, and I followed up with showing students the quantum numbers. Even when I was lecturing (for only 10 minutes or so), students were much more engaged and invested in what I was saying because they had, in the back of their mind, the system they created to locate the electrons.
 How important is it, in the grand scheme of Chemistry to know what the electron orbitals look like? Meh. You’d be able to understand most of Chemistry without it, but I like to do it because (1) it helps students with their spatial understanding (which is often sorely lacking), (2) it’s quite beautiful the way that these orbital clouds exist in every atom, and (3) it reinforces ideas about electrons and “where they want to be” as I put it. This idea of “where electrons want to be” comes up more in chemical bonding.