3D images in PDFs is a gamechanger for chemistry education

From left, SFU chemistry Teaching Professor Nabyl Merbouh with Amanda Rowlands and systems analyst Fred Chin.

March 26, 2019
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SFU chemistry Teaching Professor Nabyl Merbouh has always been an enthusiastic adopter of new technology, especially if it helps him teach organic chemistry more effectively.

Now, Merbouh and his team are the first to use Adobe Acrobat’s 3D PDF capability to help students interact with 3D models of molecules embedded in classroom materials.

“The inspiration was simple and obvious,” he says. “I have taught organic chemistry for 15 years and I was well aware that students struggled with visualizing molecules in 3D.  With this technology, students can interact with models as they wish, at their own pace, on their own computers. These easily made PDFs could make understanding these complex topics significantly easier.”

Several years ago, Merbouh petitioned his department to be one of the first to obtain a 3D printer.

“I got busy creating models of molecules, crystal lattices and biopolymers for students to hold and examine,” he says.  “I found that the ability to interact with models really helped students understand complex chemical concepts.”

The PDF models take interactive learning one step further by allowing students to interact with the models simultaneously, instead of having to take turns.

Merbouh concedes that he faced his own steep learning curve while figuring out how to create the figures/models. However, once he got the hang of it, the support from his chemistry colleagues and department chair was immediate, and he created a dedicated team to pursue the project.

 “With help from systems analyst Fred Chin and then-undergrad Amanda Rowlands, we developed our own in-house software that allowed us to render most of the molecules needed in organic chemistry courses,” he says.

The project grew further at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) in Potsdam, Germany where Merbouh teamed with group leader Kerry Gilmore to explore how the technology could be extended to include more chemistry topics.

So far, Merbouh has found that using 3D models in PDFs is an effective teaching aid.

“The combination of this technology as well as the good old fashioned “chemistry models” allows us to expand our teaching using more complex structures and to assist all kinds of learners.”

Merbouh also points out that many journals and libraries are going paperless. In the future, more instructional content will be distributed online, making this new capability more critical than ever.

The team published a preprint paper in February, and already their free instructions have been downloaded hundreds of times. Merbouh is excited that others are clearly anxious to put the technology into practice.

“Adobe introduced the capability in 2004, but someone had to work out all the kinks to make a straightforward and simple process so that everyone could use it in chemistry,” he says. “That was what the SFU and the MPI joint effort did.”.

The team’s next steps are to survey high schools in Germany and Canada to find out which topics (geometry, chemistry, biochemistry, geography) are considered a priority for such technology.

They are also in the process of installing servers at SFU and MPI to allow external parties to access their software and to receive assistance with their instructional content.

“Many small colleges and school could benefit tremendously from this SFU/MPI joint initiative,” he says. “I’m particularly excited that the technology provides an inexpensive and accessible platform for teachers and students around the globe.”

The paper can be downloaded here. To view the images in 3D, open with Adobe Acrobat. 

The Chemistry World article can be read here.