A New Quality of a Chemical Education System based on the WorldWideWeb

Th. Engel, M.C. Hemmer, A. Hofmann, A. Schunk, S. Spycher, J. Gasteiger

Computer-Chemie-Centrum, Institut für Organische Chemie,

Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Nägelsbachstr. 25, D-91052 Erlangen

Phone: +49-9131-85-26577

Fax: +49-9131-85-26566

E-mail: Thomas.Engel@chemie.uni-erlangen.de,


WWW: http://www2.chemie.uni-erlangen.de


Current approaches to educational in chemistry rely on the use of direct teacher to student communication and textbooks. Due to the exponential increase in chemical information it is important to give persons in the various disciplines that use chemistry, i.e., physicians, biologists, chemists, economists, lawyers, and not the least students access to this vast amount of information. With the traditional approaches, it is rather difficult to transmit this information in a form that such a diverse group of persons can use it efficiently. Much of the information is repeatedly located in many different sources and still does not reach the audience it is intended for. The development of a central scientific knowledge base, which employs the flexibility of internet technologies has the potential to make the transfer of chemical information to the end user and the training of students much more efficient.

These considerations serve as the basis for a multimedia education project for chemistry, named Vernetztes Studium - Chemie (VS-C).

This project is financially supported by the Federal Minister of Education and Research (BMBF) and based on a education oriented model ("Würzburger Modell"), that was initiated by several German universities and the German Chemical Society (GDCh).



Rapidly changing requirements in the society ask for constant changes in the education system. In this situation the VS-C (Vernetztes Studium – Chemie, Networking Education of Chemistry) project is of special importance. Chemistry as a subject is an excellent example to demonstrate the significance of interaction between a major discipline and various other education fields (in our case, fields like, physics, biology or mathematics) (Fig. 1). However, such relationship cause redundant information being taught by each discipline, which increases the amount of time that is necessary for finishing the study of chemistry. An additional reason for starting the project was the inevitable exponential increase in chemical information that ask for novel approaches to transmit it.

Fig. 1: Chemistry is one of the central sciences that is highly interdisciplinary


Both facts, the length of the educationprocess and the huge quantity of information that has to be handled will become even more important for a modern industrial nation. Thereby, those nations that are able to educate their specialists to use this amount of information in a productive way will have an advantage over other countries. The information society of the twenty-first century requires new ways of teaching and learning.

Modern communication technologies, such as multimedia tools, interactivity in electronic lectures or teleteaching, are able to enhance the quality of education. One of the important points is that the student can participate whenever and wherever he is in need of information. As a consequence, the education system becomes highly flexible. This concept of education allows the student to control the learning success by himself, by using multimedia exercises or training tools. Complicated problems that challenge the student can be visualized quite effectively or can be simulated using artificial intelligence or knowledge bases. To achieve this, the students first have to dispose their insecurity against a new technology of learning and then they will recognize that the flood of information is not overwhelming but encouraging.

The concept of the project VS-C is to generate small information packages (knowledge-modules), that can be customized to so called "learning trajectories" according to the requirements of the trainee (Fig 2). The modules will be made available on the World Wide Web. In order to visualize complex contexts or perform the above simulations, existing multimedia technologies will be used together with WWW software explicitly developed for this task. The aim of the 16 groups participating in the project at German universities is to achieve an individual, interactive and explorative multimedia learning system.

Fig. 2: Comparison of the traditional way of learning with the new solution oriented way of learning. The first one spares the student time by using interdisciplinary, redundant knowledge modules in a basic knowledge pool.


The tasks of our research team at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg are: standardization of chemical structure handling within the entire project, develop a curriculum for Chemo-Informatics, and the education of medical students in chemistry.


Concept of the project

Solving problems in complex relationships often requires knowledge from various disciplines. The traditional way of knowledge acquisition by accumulation is, however not very economic. So, a solution oriented way of learning, using new networked multimedia tools, that gain access to several information sources seems to be more efficient.

The contents of the learning modules will be generated and proofed by an experienced staff from institutes of several universities. However, the modularity of the project leads to an independence of the educational system (schools, universities, vocal education) and of the subject (chemistry, medicine, economics, etc.).

Besides the main goal of the project, there will be the opportunity to establish a nation-wide standardization and additionally it provides a German contribution to the harmonization of the European chemical education and furthermore increase the attraction of German universities to foreign students.


Reforming Chemical Education – The "Würzburger Modell" -

Based on the demand for a new model of chemical education the "Würzburger Modell" was initiated and developed by the German Chemical Society (GDCh).

Fig. 3: Scheme of the "Würzburger Modell"


In this model the students have to finish 6 semesters of basic studies in chemistry before they could specialize in one of the three main sections (Fig. 3):

The latter option, including an additional non-chemical study, is the fundamental modification concerning the traditional German study of chemistry. Graduates with an adequate chemical education and supplementary knowledge in a non-chemical subject are interesting candidates not only for the industry but also for administrational professions. The students obtain, similar to the one specialized in chemistry, a Master of Science degree of both subjects, e.g., Economical Chemist.

In the future the student has to decide already after 6 semesters, which way he wants to go. But, in contrast to the traditional way, the new model offers the opportunity to gain vocational experience in the following 4 semesters.

Another aspect is the high flexibility of the concept. The university can react faster to new developments in science and, to the demands of the students. The flexibility increases the chance for the graduates to find a job both in traditional chemical industry and non-scientific professions.


Organization of the Project

Sixteen research groups from 13 universities are responsible for the development of 29 different projects. These 29 topics cover 13 different areas of chemistry and comprises 16 interdisciplinary subprojects. The results of the cooperation of the universities and the Fachinformations Zentrum BERLIN (FIZ Berlin) (http://www.fiz-chemie.de) will be a new basic study of chemistry.

Innovative concepts of learning modules allow an individual education and subsidiary specialization with modern teaching forms, i.e., solution-oriented and explorative learning. The so-called knowledge modules represent small packages of multimedia information. Multimedia elements support the theoretical information as modern teaching aid with interactive experiments (simulations or visualizations) and with exercises that will be available. It will be possible to navigate selectively, depending on the different educational requirements (teaching and learning trajectories), through a closely knit network of knowledge modules, implemented on an electronic platform. With respect to the basic education in chemistry but also to other subjects, navigational routes oriented to the Würzburger Model are offered to both instructor and students. Furthermore, the cross-linked topics in chemistry are suited as a platform for almost every arbitrarily differentiated educational courses and, therefore, take into account the future job market, that will be characterized by increasing dynamics.

Target groups for the project are students who are studying chemistry as major or minor subject, postgraduates in chemistry and related subjects, but also others, interested in increasing their chemical knowledge for professional or private purposes.

In order to grant access to everyone the project will be commercially available on CD-ROM and implemented in high school in-house-systems or by the internet.


Technological Aspects of the Project

In contrast to other learning software which is available commercially or for free via internet, the teaching material of VS-C is not only presented by multimedia. The main progress will be the flexibility of the system, due to modularization. Teaching material is separated in small packages, called modules (Fig. 2)., which could be a single HTML-page or even more and which contains a special internal information code, called header.

The header contains important information about the position of the module in a global context of a subject, about the content, about requirements needed to understand the module during the learning procedure but also recommendations for related modules. Regarding the knowledge of the student, a generator will create an individual learning trajectory based on this information (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Technological concept of the project, based on a pool of HTML-pages (every rectangle represents a learning module) generated for an individual learning trajectory


A default learning trajectory is prepared and hidden in the header of the modules by the recommendation of qualified educators. Finally, the HTML-pages (modules) and the learning trajectories were developed and discussed by experts of interdisciplinary subjects, didactics and web-designers.


Projects covered by the University of Erlangen

The generated teaching and learning aids are thought to be supplementary material to lectures and to lab courses and should not replace the traditional way of teaching. Thus no virtual university should be established by the project. Moreover, theory and practice have to be connected to each other by multimedia tools. Besides employing technologies such as animations, movies and audio material, the students should not fail to notice the actual knowledge content, that is behind the visualization. The deliberately placed multimedia elements in the knowledge modules and the networking subprojects, respectively, could make chemistry easier to understand for the student.

The application of multimedia techniques in this project provides an opportunity to represent the material in a way that captivates the students and makes learning chemistry more interesting.

At the university of Erlangen-Nürnberg three projects of VS-C are to be acquired: Input and representation of Chemical Structures, Chemical Information, Chemistry for Medical Students.


1.) Input, representation, and visualization of chemical structures and reactions

The topic Chemical Structures deals with the input, representation, and visualization of chemical structures and reactions. Therefore the task is to create tools for both, the coworker and developer of the project and for the student or the commercial user. The aim of this subproject is different to both other: it is technically oriented and no HTML-pages will be generated, but scripts or programs behind the pages, for interactive using.

Chemistry possesses an international, very efficient language for the transmission of information about chemical structures and reactions. For the computational processing of this language, new methods for graphical input (editors) and for coding structures and reactions will be developed. The collected data should be completely retrievable (e.g. by substructure searching) in a database.

In the project "VS-C" the requirement of cross connections either in between single chemical subjects (modules) but also to chemical information is absolutely necessary. Both, the information content and the chemical structures are the elements that need to be cross linked.

In this subproject the aim is to create structure formulas using an editor and to save them in discrete committed formats (Fig. 5). Consequently, the student can load a structure with different software. Additionally structure and substructure search should be provided for all substances applied to the project, so the structure codes have to be retrievable.

Fig. 5: Example of a simply structured, freely available molecule editor (Java Molecule Editor of Paul Ertl)



2.) Chemical Information

The subproject Chemical Information contains, besides a tutorial, the topics "Access to Literature in Chemistry", "Usage of Databases", "Representation of Chemical Information", "Methods of Evaluating Data" and an "Introduction to Knowledge-Based Systems".

Chemistry always was a science, dramatically depending on versatile information. Due to the enormous amount of chemical information (Fig. 6, 7) this could only be mastered by electronic methods. Storage, access and processing of chemical information ought to be essential components of a modern education of chemistry.

Fig. 6: The exponential increase of substances registered in the Chemical Abstract (CA) databases


Fig. 7: The distribution of literature in the Chemical Abstract (CA) databases


The first step in this way would be the efficient usage of databases. Nowadays the chemical science is supported by databases in a specific way while the chemical industry uses databases experienced since a lot of years. In the past the access of chemical databases was mostly restricted to literature data. But in recent years the development of complex databases for structures, reactions and properties gains in significance. To prepare the student for this trend the translation of the chemist’s language (structure formula and reaction equation) into electronic form, must be comprehensive. Only on this basis the students can understand and develop methods for acquisition chemical information from databases.

Modern methods of data evaluation, e.g., neuronal networks and genetic algorithms, should be emphasized in education due to evaluate the experimental data efficiently.

Knowledge based and expert systems for synthesis planning, reaction prediction and spectra simulation are very powerful tools, that find an increasing acceptance (Fig. 8).

These developments have to be taken into account for the education in chemistry.




Fig. 8: Example of an interactive HTML-page which combines the technical developments of the subproject before, and the database knowledge of chemical information


3.) Chemical Education of Medical Students

Chemistry for Medical Students is an interdisciplinary subproject combining several knowledge-domains. Especially, it is important in these interdisciplinary modules, not to provide the trainees with excessive information of other disciplines.

Basic knowledge in chemistry is often essential in subjects like physics, biology, medicine or science of engineering. The education of chemistry at the university offers a broad basic spectrum of lectures for the student of different subjects. Not only in the case of medicine there are a lot of students who are confronted only one to two semesters with chemistry. Therefore a good education requires superior, high quality and efficiently employed teaching aids. Traditional forms of education as lectures, seminars and lab courses have to be supported or supplied by electronic media. Additionally the subject has to be adapted to the concrete requirements of the medical students.

In the following some multimedia examples (by snapshots) are presented in German language from our teaching material.

The first example is the most common multimedia element used in chemistry (Fig. 9). Based on a structure format a 2-dimensional structure could be presented by the Chime Plug-in (MDL, http://www.mdli.com/support/chime/default.html) in three dimensions. Chime provides a lot of interesting interactivity, such as rotation, different visualization modes as "ball and stick", "backbone" or "surface".

A similar language is Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML, http://www.vrml.ch.), that could be used for interactive explorative movements in a defined space, in chemistry between the atoms.


Fig. 9: Example of a complex molecule (hemoglobin) presented in 3D by MDL´s Chime Plug-in



To make complex reactions easier to understand, it is useful to incorporate animated pictures (animated gif´s). On the HTML-page presented in Fig. 10 the students can activate a separate window, that shows a short animation of a molecular reaction.


Fig. 10: Example of an animated picture, opening a separate window after mouse click. The presentation shows a peptide-synthesis.


A very attractive multimedia element is a video (Fig. 11). In contrast to the animation, students can see in a video the real world, e.g., useful for showing dangerous experiments or very fast or critical observable processes. One of the time intensive tasks is the preprocessing of videos to gain a compromise between the size of a video, i.e., the loading time, and its quality.

Fig. 11: Example of a short movie, demonstrating the coloring of a flame by different salts (electronic excitation).



A high extent of interactivity is the controlling of the teaching material by the student himself. The figure(Fig. 12) shows a HTML-Page with two independent examples of exercises.

In the background of the HTML-Page the students will be asked by the question-mark which chemical structure results by a reaction he has worked out before. So he acquires step by step the information which leads to the target.

The separate window in front of (Aminosäuren) gives only several proposals of answers to one question. Here the student chooses the answer by recapitulation the teaching material he learned before.

Fig. 12: Example of interactive exercises, that a student can work out (urea-cycle)



The Würzburger Model is the basis for the reformation of the study of chemistry at the universities. Basically one reason is, that the students could finish the study with the final degree of a vocational Master of Science (without doctorate degree). This new, practically-oriented graduation increases the attractiveness of the students to be employed by the industry due to less time of study.

To reduce the time of study it is also necessary to eliminate the redundant information. A highly flexible system consisting of knowledge modules, such as described in this paper, serve as the technological source.

The aim of the VS-C project is to realize an individual, interactive, explorative learning system on the Web with multimedia applications. These technologies provide a very high standard of transmitting information. As books are used in studying, the new electronic media should not replace them or even lectures, but supply the existing teaching forms.

This paper is a good demonstration, that a lot of information will be lost compared to the multimedia content of the HTML examples.



This project is financially supported by the Federal Minister of Education and Research (BMBF).