Virtual Water



J. Trindade* and C. Fiolhais°

*High Education School for Technology and Management, Polythecnic Institute of Guarda, P-6300 Guarda, Portugal,

° Centre For Computational Physics and Physics Department, University of Coimbra

P-3000 Coimbra, Portugal,





Much of the physicist’s knowledge takes the form of images, non-propositional types of knowing, which often appear associated to imaginary situations. Nowadays, computer-based worlds are useful because they allow learners to visualize physical processes which are difficult to observe in reality and, therefore, to construct better qualitative understandings. Since the use of images is an effective tool for understanding complex and/or abstract information and since immersion in virtual environments is a recent technique which needs to be explored and evaluated in education, we are developing a virtual environment for studying phases and phases transitions – Virtual Water.

Within Virtual Water, the visualization of atomic and molecular orbitals (respectively for hydrogen and water) and the simulation of the molecular dynamics of the solid, liquid and gaseous phases and phase transitions is three-dimensional, with the possibility of haptic interaction. The utility of sensory immersive interfaces for enhancing the learning of atomic, molecular and concepts is being evaluated.




1. introduction

      Research in Physics learning is often based on the analysis of symbolic representations provided by pupils. These representations may take the form of images. In effect, much of what physicists and physics students know takes the form of images, non-propositional types of knowing, which often appear associated with imaginary situations. There are many examples of physicists who used imaginary worlds to provide new insights. For example, Einstein said that he approached relativity thinking about how a person riding a photon would see the world. Gamow, in his famous books on Mr. Tompkins, wrote about “swimming” in the middle of water and alcohol molecules. Kekule had a “vision” of the benzene molecule. Faraday imagined field lines without actually seeing them. Nowadays, computer-based worlds can capitalize on and improve the human capability for imagery. Computer technologies, which are becoming more and more sophisticated, allow learners to visualize physical processes which would be otherwise difficult to see and, therefore, to construct better qualitative understandings.

    There have been many studies about understanding and developing concepts of the atomic theory of matter and changes of physical state of  a substance.  Their results show that some incorrect concepts are promptly transferred from the macro-world to the micro-world.  The scientific idea of a substance is a conceptualization, contingent upon a number of other ideas like those of atoms and molecules wich belong to the microscopic world.  Although it is not always the case, pupils should  appreciate that the identity of a substance is independent of the physical state it might appear. Changes of state are only due to the different aggregation of the same atoms or molecules.

    To aid pupils understanding these concepts, the Physics and Mathematics Departments of the University of Coimbra, Portugal, the Exploratory Henry the Navigator and the High Education School for Technology and Management of Guarda, are developing the Virtual Water project, a virtual environment devoted to learning the constitution and properties of water in its different phases. Within this environment, the visualization of atomic (hydrogen) and molecular (water) orbitals and the simulation of the molecular dynamics of the solid, liquid and gaseous phases and phase transitions occurs in three dimensions, with the possibility of haptic interaction.  Our project consists in building a series of microworlds for teaching science concepts and skills that students typically have difficulties mastering. Terminal high-school students are the initial users we want to offer our virtual reality worlds, giving them  a suite of tools their science inquiry activities [1].


2. Virtual water

    The main goals in producing our application are [2]:

         To provide an educational environment for students to explore some microscopic and abstract concepts, which are teached in classes but are far away from daily experience.

         To develop a practical knowledge concerning the application of virtual reality techniques in education.

         To contribute with data on the pedagogical usefulness of virtual reality. People in the field have the intuition that virtual reality can have a strong impact on learning. But believing in virtual reality is not sufficient: its usefulness has to be proved as far as possible.

                The two main virtual environments of Virtual Water are:

        Quantum mechanics environment - In this scenery we deal with the geometry of the water molecule, its electron density, and molecular orbitals. In this virtual environment students can build and travel through molecular orbitals and molecular density. In this way, they should gain a better idea of the molecular structure and clarify the concept of chemical bonding.

        Molecular dynamics environment – In this component, we aim at better student’s understanding some water properties by direct simulation of molecules. We assume, for simplify, that the molecular dynamics can be treated classically using Newton's equations of motion with the Lennard-Jones potential. The user interacts with the environment in order to study the liquid, gaseous and solid phases (Figure 1) and the respective phase transitions. A student can be situated at the site in the gas, liquid or solid (i.e., he perceives immersively the microworld from that perspective). The student, with the data glove, can also catch the molecule and feel its vibration.








Figure 1: Two frames from the molecular dynamics environment in Virtual Water: a) the gaseous phase, with the ball and stick model; b) flying through the ice structure.


3. conclusion

   The use of immersive virtual environments and haptic information, although recent, seems to be a powerful means for visualizing and understanding complex and/or abstract information. Actions like grabbing a molecule, breaking hydrogen bonds networks, feeling molecular vibrations, flying through channels in ice and through the empty spaces of molecules in liquid and gas phases (as in George Gamow’s book, "Adventures of Mr. Tompkins"), etc. are impossible in real world, but possible in computer simulations.

   Virtual Water, our virtual environment for studying phases and the atomic corpuscular theory of matter, although unfinished, seems very promising. We are acquiring new means in learning and teaching Physics and Chemistry and building knowledge on virtual reality techniques, which can be applied to problems other than water structure. Projects, like ours, on virtual reality should determine what are the most effective educational benefits and to learn about the weaknesses of this new technology in an educational setting.

   Feedback from students is being collected and analyzed, in order to define the pedagogical success of our virtual environment. We hope that, with tools like Virtual Water, intangible experiments become more and more concrete for students and that this fact may facilitate the development in their minds of sound scientific models.


4. acknowledgements

   The authors thank Prof. Dr. Victor Gil, from the Chemistry Department of the University of Coimbra, for his precious suggestions, and Prof. Dr. José Carlos Teixeira, from the Mathematics Department of the same University, for his technical advice. We also wish to acknowledge the assistance of the students Nuno Pereira and Eduardo Coutinho. This research was supported in part by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (project PRAXIS/FIS/14188/1998).



1.        J. Trindade, C. Fiolhais, V. Gil and J. C. Teixeira, Virtual environment of water molecules for learning and teaching science, Computer Graphics Topic, 5 (11), pp. 12-15, 1999.

2.        J. Trindade, C. Fiolhais and V. Gil, Virtual Water - an application of virtual environments as an education tool for physics and chemistry. In Advanced Research in Computers and Communication in Education, Proceedings of ICCE’99 – 7th International Conference on Computers in Education, Chiba, Japan, ed. G. Cumming, T. Okamoto, and L. Gomez, vol. 2, pp. 655-658, (IOS Press, Amsterdam) 1999.