Before me hovers a massive aggregation of colored balls compacted into what I can only describe as a blob. It hangs in midair, grows, shrinks, and has the undivided attention of a group of bug-eyed, goggled students. The "blob" is a computer generated molecule, and its appearance in the StereoGraphic Visualization Laboratory in the chemistry building at Indiana University Bloomington could set a precedent for the classrooms of the future.
Chemists have always stressed the importance of visualizing molecules both in learning and in teaching. "You have to be able to communicate so other people know what you're saying," says John Huffman, a senior scientist in the chemistry department and director of the Molecular Structure Center at IUB. For teaching to be effective, students and teachers must be "able to look at the same place and see the same thing," according to Huffman. Accomplishing this often involves the tedious crafting of models, and as chemists study increasingly complex molecules, traditional modelmaking can no longer keep up with the fast pace research mandates. Huffman recalls one model of a sperm whale myoglobin (a red, iron containing protein pigment, found in muscles, that is similar to hemoglobin) molecule that filled an entire room and required three weeks and the efforts of two chemists to complete.
In recent years, Indiana University chemists have exploited computer technology to view molecular structures. A network of twenty-five Silicon Graphics workstations in the chemistry building lets users manipulate computer images of molecules. Although these computers can quickly produce a molecular model, the resulting image is still viewed on a two-dimensional screen, and rotating it to view one side means the observer cannot see important features on the other. Andrew Ellington, an associate professor of chemistry at IUB, compares learning from this two-dimensional representation to learning to sculpt by using only pencil and paper. A new mechanism for depicting molecules was needed, one that could combine the effectiveness of a hand-built model with the efficiency of a computer generated one.
The solution came with the development of CrystalEyes stereographic hardware technology by StereoGraphics Corporation. Viewed through special goggles with liquid crystal shutters (CrystalEyes), an image sent through the stereographic hardware appears to float in front of the screen in three dimensions almost like Jaws did when moviegoers donned red and blue 3-D glasses. With a mouse, a user can rotate, shrink, and enlarge the image, and even cause it to interact with other molecules. The effect is based upon tricking the eyes. With a stereographic projection system, an object on a computer screen is projected onto a large screen in the classroom and regenerated as two separate images of the same molecule as seen from slightly different angles. An infrared emitter attached to the screen signals each of the two lenses on liquid crystal goggles worn by the observers to turn rapidly on and off. At the same time, the two images are successively flashed at a high frequency synchronized to the on-off switching of the goggles. The effect fools a viewer's eyes into seeing two different angles of the same object at the same time--the illusion of three dimensions.
The first stereographic system at IUB has been set up in a demonstration room with a thirty-person capacity. Arrangements are being made to equip a one hundred–person lecture hall with a less sophisticated model of the stereographic equipment that uses polarized screens and goggles instead of the infrared emitter to oscillate between the two images. This new room has many prospective uses beyond chemistry. Huffman and his colleagues envision use of this technology in many disciplines. From a three-dimensional perspective, geologists could observe mineral structures and rock formations; theatre students could understand the effects of lighting; and art and sculpture classes could inspect masterpieces from all angles. In the near future, whole episodes of complex action might interplay within the lecture room.
"We're demonstrating the classroom of the future," says Huffman excitedly. "This is where we're going. We're looking to answer the questions, How can we share knowledge? How do you make students understand something that's hard to understand? That's progress," Huffman chuckles. "The most valuable thing humans have is time. We do whatever we can do to reduce the time, but not the understanding."
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