A new mobile app developed by RMIT software engineering students could be a game changer for chemistry education.
Associate Professor Michelle Spencer and her colleague Associate Professor Oliver Jones were looking for new ways to engage and spark the interest of their first-year chemistry students.
“Learning chemistry can be challenging, but by developing an iOS game we can teach some fundamental concepts for first year organic chemistry in a more innovative and fun way,” Spencer said.
“The app is called Chirality and uses drag and drop, touch-screen interfaces for you to solve puzzles and answer questions, earning medals as you progress.”
Gamifying the learning experience seemed a logical way to make chemistry more interesting and accessible to a generation of students already glued to their phones.
“Since students seem addicted to their smart devices, we figured why not make use of it and develop an engaging app for teaching chemistry,” Jones said.
But having a great idea for a mobile game is one thing, doing the actual developing requires a specific skill set.
“Looking for help, we found RMIT’s software engineering project course, where you can pitch a project for students to tackle, giving them practical experience developing software, along with their teamwork skills,” Spencer said.
The software engineering initiative, run by Dr Maria Spichkova, allows Bachelor and Masters degree students to choose from a range of software development projects proposed by "clients", who could come from business, industry or other organisations, as well as from within RMIT itself.
"The students pick which project they wish to work on, and it can be quite competitive, though we were fortunate – our project attracted six students and we went from there,” Jones said.
The development team included both undergraduates and postgraduates studying computer science, information technology and software engineering, according to project manager Vina Huynh.
“I studied for a Bachelor of Software Engineering and the project was the last subject required to complete my degree,” she said.
“It served to consolidate and test everything that I’ve learnt in the last four years and bring it to life.”
The biggest challenge for the team was that none of them had actually created an app before.
“Absolutely no one on the team had any iOS game developing experience, so we were all starting completely anew, but at the same time that was precisely what made the project so enjoyable,” she said.
“We all did our own research into the world of iOS, while also relying on each other to help share and teach the knowledge we had acquired – the learning process helped us grow as a team.”
Faced with this challenge the team all fell back on what they’d learnt throughout their degrees and applied it to the task at hand.
“Half of us have completed the iOS introductory subject and while it didn't teach us game development specifically, it gave us the foundations that helped get across the more advanced features we needed to build the app,” said Huynh.
“My degree introduced me to basic software project concepts, in particular the software development lifecycle, which I applied and built on in my role of project manager, but what helped the most was the industry-based learning that I took in my third year.
“Seeing how things work in a more realistic workplace environment taught me many things that sitting in a classroom just can't replicate, such as how to work with others (both your own team and your client), how to find my feet when I literally have no idea what to do, and how to bring ideas to life.”
While Huynh took on the role of project manager, there were also three developers in the team (Tuan Nguyen, Quang Thinh Tran and Liqiang Yang) and two testers (Li Wang and Xinghui Gai).
For Master of Information Technology student Tuan Nguyen the experience has given him new skills and potentially a new career path to follow.
“The project opened up a new and interesting field for me - I found developing iOS apps to be great fun and I’m very excited to see my work become a real, approved app that is downloaded and used worldwide,” he said.
“I’m looking for potential iOS developer positions for my first graduate role, but if Michelle and Oliver need updates or maintenance for Chirality they can contact me – I’d be happy to help!”
Updating the app is a priority for Spencer and Jones, as they want it to include extra content to cover more of the chemistry syllabus.
“For our first foray into app development Chirality has been very successful, with many of our students using it – apparently, even on the train!” Spencer said.
“But we want to use the app to teach first year chemistry and the addition of new levels and functionality will mean it covers more of the undergraduate course.”
To this end they’ve commissioned another team of software engineering students to make the upgrades.
“Chirality is doing really well on the App Store, with hundreds of downloads already and lots of interest in the US and Europe, but by expanding the app and making it available for Android many more students can use it,” Spencer said.
“So we took the opportunity to expand it through another software engineering project, with a new team of students, and we’ve also been awarded funding to help us assess the pedagogical impact of using the app in teaching chemistry.”
While delighted with the finished product, the development process has also been an enjoyable and eye-opening experience.
“As well as transforming our ideas into a high quality app, the students worked very well together and we really enjoyed working with them - they were highly professional,” Jones said.
“Apple is fussy about what they accept onto the App Store, so it’s a testament to the students’ capabilities that our app was accepted first time, with no revisions required, particularly as the students had not developed an app before.”
Working well together made the project enjoyable, but also unexpectedly informative, according to Huynh.
“Michelle and Oliver were a great help with going through all the chemistry content with us, we weren't expected to know anything, but I'm not far from an organic chemistry master now, if I do say so myself!” she said.
“They were also great to work with, as they were very understanding of the technical difficulties that came with certain requests, and this was definitely a key factor in the project running so smoothly.
“I'm still quite shocked about Chirality hitting the App Store, because such an achievement just seems so unreal and I couldn't be more proud of the team for making it a reality!”
Story: Daniel Walder