Metro Detroit Teacher’s App Helps Students Master Organic Chemistry

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

In 20 years of teaching college-level organic chemistry to high school students at Detroit Country Day, Julia Winter has perfected a method of conveying difficult scientific concepts to students. Now, she’s formed a company based in Ann Arbor, MI, called Alchemie to share what she’s learned with parents and kids.

The endeavor began two years ago as an extracurricular preparatory course, but now it’s shifted to the world of mobile gaming through an app called Chairs, which Winter describes as the world’s first organic chemistry video game. Winter said Chairs makes learning chemistry “tactile, intuitive, and fun.” The Chairs app teaches spatial understanding, which Winter said is vital to understanding chemistry, yet rarely learned through traditional class work.

Chairs is named after a phenomenon in chemistry related to cyclohexanes, a molecule where six different tetrahedral carbons are linked together in a circle. When viewed from above, it looks like a hexagon, but from the side, it’s described as a “chair.” The point of the game is solve the visual puzzle that results when the cyclohexane molecules move and bond to other molecules.

Winter started by developing a prep course in 2013, and then worked with a professional game designer on a mobile game to teach visual-spatial understanding. She wanted the Chairs app to be used as part of the curriculum for a subject that has a 40 to 50 percent fail rate, Winter said. That number is significant, because anyone interested in pursuing a career in medicine and many other scientific fields must first master organic chemistry.

“If you give kids a hard problem to solve as part of their homework, they won’t want to do it,” Winter said. “But if you give them a hard game to play, they’ll figure it out. They’re really good at playing games and solving puzzles on their phones, and this taps into that.”

Winter said despite having no marketing budget, the Android and iOS versions of the app have already been downloaded more than 4,000 times. One word pops up repeatedly in user reviews posted on the Alchemie site: addictive.

The three-person Alchemie team is now on a hunt for funding to develop additional learning games that are in the company’s pipeline. The company has received support from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Ann Arbor SPARK so far, and is in the process of applying for an SBIR grant from the federal government. Winter said she’s already spent $70,000 of her own money developing game ideas and protecting her intellectual property.

Though Winter envisions using the Chairs template to make other learning games for difficult school subjects, she eventually wants Alchemie to turn into a think tank for game ideas that would be licensed to software design firms.

“It’s been quite a journey, going from teacher to startup founder,” Winter said. “It’s a big idea, but if we can help people succeed in chemistry, we can help them succeed in other courses.”