Cyber class brings science workshops to life


The virtual world of the cyber classroom brings workshops at Technopolis up to date.

Technology makes tricky concepts easier to grasp

The newest addition to the recently expanded Technopolis museum in Mechelen is the cyber classroom, installed in Belgium for the first time. Thanks to German technology, youngsters can see such things as chemical reactions in 3D, making tricky concepts easier to grasp. The cyber classroom is installed at the Lab, where children take part in workshops full of chemical and biological experiments.

The Lab at Technopolis is a separate room in the hands-on science centre that’s not open to general visitors. In the Lab, students in the second and third grade of secondary education can use the specialised equipment to find lactose in milk, analyse the DNA of plants, create bio-ethanol and compare regular sunscreen to sunscreen with nanoparticles. On Wednesday afternoons, there is one workshop, and during the holidays and at weekends, there are three three-hour workshops a day.

Technopolis hopes that the Lab will help it reach a new target group: adolescents. The general exhibitions mostly cater to a younger audience. “On some occasions, we also provide simpler workshops for younger children, but the Lab is mainly meant for youngsters who are starting to consider their future school careers,” says Dennis Van Landeghem, one of the workshops’ organisers. These youngsters will soon also be invited to the new Atelier, where they will be able to create designs with equipment such as 3D printers, like in a fabrication laboratory, or fab lab.

For a couple of weeks now, the Lab has housed a high-tech “cyber classroom”, which looks like a new type of game console. It’s not meant for playing games, though, but for making abstract scientific concepts such as DNA easier to understand. 

With the aid of 3D glasses and a Wii console controller, students can examine molecules from all sides and make molecular models. On the right-hand side of the screen, they receive tips and can read a concise explanation of the visualised processes in Dutch. “It definitely helps to increase their interest, because they can actually dive into these otherwise quite inaccessible worlds,” says Van Landeghem.

The cyber classrooms have found their way to Belgium thanks to the partnership of Technopolis with German chemistry company Evonik. Evonik designed the 3D modules with the help of Stuttgart-based technology company Visenso, which developed the innovative 3D teaching and learning environment. Evonik earlier introduced the cyber classroom at about 10 German schools and universities. The company hopes to further internationalise the concept by creating versions in different languages.

Into new worlds

Via this fun and accessible teaching technology, Evonik – which also has a branch in Antwerp – hopes to attract more youngsters to the studies that prepare them for a career in the chemistry sector. Although the number of registrations for these studies is rising, the Belgian chemistry industry still needs many qualified young people to become the next generation of scientists. Research by essenscia, the Belgian umbrella organisation for the chemistry and life sciences sectors, predicts that in Flanders annually about 2,000 of the 60,000 employees in these industries will retire.

It helps increase their interest: they can dive into these otherwise quite inaccessible worlds

- Dennis Van Landeghem

Although the sponsor of the cyber classroom programme is a chemistry company, there is also virtual lesson material in other disciplines of general humanities education like maths, physics, biology and art. There also is a version dedicated to topics for more technical studies, such as production and microsystems technology.

To illustrate the many possibilities of this virtual classroom, Van Landeghem pushes a few buttons and suddenly the particle detector of Cern in Switzerland appears before my bespectacled eyes. “The cyber classroom also offers many possibilities for the Atelier,” he says. It could, for example, help students make their own 3D copy of Michelangelo’s David.

“Furthermore, we hope to create our own virtual models, specially adapted to the workshops here,” he adds. Another plan is to create a programme that enables students to control the cyber classroom with a tablet computer, which could be more practical. For people without a Wii, like me, it is a little complicated getting used to moving around in this virtual universe. The staff at Technopolis have received training from the developer, Visenso.

At the end of the demonstration, I ask Van Landeghem how popular the cyber classroom was among the few classes that have already tried out the new technology. “The reactions were definitely positive as the interactive assignments speak to their imagination,” he says. “Still, the experiments with small explosions usually leave the biggest impression.”

Cyber class brings science workshops to life

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