Alchemie Snags NSF Grant to Develop AR Tools for Teaching Chemistry

Alchemie, a Troy, MI-based educational technology startup, has won another round of funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop 3D and augmented reality (AR) learning tools for teaching general chemistry.

The funding, announced this week, is a $140,000 Technology Enhancement through Commercialization Partnerships extension to a Phase II SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant focused on building game-based learning modules and assessment technology for organic chemistry. Since 2016, Alchemie has received a total of $1.3 million from the NSF. The six-person company was founded in 2013.

Alchemie is partnering with education company McGraw-Hill to integrate interactive AR tools into a package of general chemistry courseware. Alchemie CEO Julia Winter, who spent 20 years teaching organic chemistry before jumping full-time into entrepreneurship three years ago, says her company also dabbled in virtual reality tools, but ultimately decided to pursue mobile AR applications because of their easy accessibility.

“You can use it on a phone or tablet,” Winter points out. “It allows students to play around and interact with some very theoretical stuff.”

Winter says presenting the information in AR allows students to better grasp molecular structures, which are often depicted as hard-to-understand 2D drawings in learning materials. Physical models work well in terms of teaching, she continues, but they are expensive and not always portable.

Alchemie has been testing an AR tool called ModelAR at the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, Georgia Tech, and the University of Washington in preparation for an April launch. Winter says that, so far, she’s heard a lot of positive feedback from students and teachers, who like having the ability to zoom in on particular chemical bonds.

Alchemie already produces a suite of app-based games and tools for learning organic chemistry, which Winter says are used at more than 70 institutions across the country. The company launched its signature product, Mechanisms, last fall. Mechanisms, in which students practice reaction mechanisms by virtually manipulating individual bonds and electrons, is tied to an assessment platform called Epiphany, allowing Alchemie to also provide learning analytics to instructors.

“You can watch students learn in real time,” Winter says. “A big piece of our NSF grant involves processing data from analytics.”

Alchemie has competitors—Chem101 is among them—but Winter says her company’s narrow focus on the spatial aspect of chemistry and a mobile-first approach make it unique. “We don’t try to boil the ocean,” she adds. “We focus on model concepts that are hard to teach and assess.”

Alchemie plans to run full-speed-ahead in 2019 as it works with McGraw-Hill on integrating ModelAR into educational software.

“With the expansion into the third dimension through augmented reality, Alchemie’s tools will be a game-changer for chemistry education, and help more students succeed in their courses,” said Scott Virkler, chief product and operating officer for McGraw-Hill’s higher education group, in a statement.

In addition to NSF support, Alchemie has raised a total of $770,000 from angel and venture funds, including Invest Michigan, Belle Impact Fund, and BlueWater Angels.

“We’re really excited, and we’re hiring,” Winter says.

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