Dordt College News

Helping others act on what is known

March 14, 2014

Visualizations help people develop mental models that allow them to picture invisible forces at work in the physical world,” says Dr. Peter Mahaffy. He believes that learning chemistry happens best when people have molecular-level images of chemical substances and reactions they can connect to what they observe and what they see represented symbolically.

Today’s powerful computer tools make this possible. Mahaffy, his colleague Dr. Brian Martin, and several King’s students are creating such visualizations at the King’s Centre for Visualization in the Sciences ( Their website offers interactive 3D modeling resources in these areas: global climate change, modern physics, special relativity, astronomy, chemistry, mathematical modeling, elementary science, and the multiple uses of chemicals.

“We’re no longer limited to static, two-dimensional images,” Mahaffy says. “We can use teaching packages that introduce molecular dynamics and watch the light bulbs go on in students eyes when they ‘see’ for the first time why ice cubes float or what an aquated ion in solution really ‘looks’ like.”

Mahaffy hopes such tools will help people address the complex problems facing today’s world.

The climate-change visualization begins with fundamental climate science. The resource was produced at KCVS as a joint project with the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and UNESCO, and in partnership with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in the UK, the American Chemical Society (ACS), and the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry.

Learners are invited to look at past data on temperature and concentrations of greenhouse gases. Using digital learning objects, they begin to see how increased carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere can lead to a drop in ocean pH and in reduction of the carbonate concentrations needed for marine organisms to form their exoskeletons.

“We leave viewers with a sense of empowerment for what can be done,” says Mahaffy. The final lesson breaks down the problem of increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere over the next 50 years, and learners explore the effect that various strategies related to energy, land use, etc., can play in stabilizing atmospheric carbon.

KCVS began in 2005 as a pilot program with funding from the Canadian government. Today it relies on grants and partnerships with other organizations to keep its researchers creating resources. Mahaffy is committed to keeping the information public.

“Growing up in East Africa, I know there are people in the world who have amazing creativity but limited financial resources,” he says. He hopes that the work he and others are doing will help people around the world find solutions that can transform lives.

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