The app that allows you to conduct chemical experiments

The app that allows you to conduct chemical experiments

ROMA – IMAGINE how Matela Ramakhula, a National University of Lesotho (NUL)’s Analyst Programmer, will have his virtual laboratory benefit students. A student in a remote high school without a physical laboratory picks up his cellphone, “enters” into a virtual laboratory, does chemical experiments, and then closes the app. It is as simple as that.

Here is a student who wants to do a famous titration experiment in chemistry but, oops! There is no lab in his high school.
“That is a major problem in most of Lesotho’s high schools,” Ramakhula says.

In fact some freshmen BSc students do chemistry experiments for the first time when they reach the NUL.
That need not be the case in the age of technology, according to Ramakhula.

So our fictitious student bumps across an app being developed by Ramakhula.
“In fact we are going to make efforts to ensure the app is readily available to high school students in Lesotho and abroad,” he says.
This app is no ordinary app.

It is a living laboratory, clad with materials and equipment needed to help you do your chemistry experiments effortlessly.
It has the right kind of equipment, it has burettes and pipettes, it has conical flasks— well it has all those chemical stuff with funny names.
So imagine this student “entering the lab” so to speak.

Yes, the lab is designed such that it is a 3D animation of the actual chemistry lab. So when the student enters, he sort of feels how it is to be in a physical laboratory. In fact by the time a student enters a real physical lab for the first time, he will be so confident that he will easily master the actual lab experiments.

“This idea is nothing new, this is how pilots are trained,” Ramakhula reveals.
Pilots, he says, are often trained in a simulated environment.
You know what that means?

They are made to be in a situation where they feel like they are actually piloting an airplane while in reality, they are not.
By the time they enter actual planes, they are experts—sort of.
So our student has entered our virtual chemistry laboratory, specifically to do the famous titration—what next?

Well, let us have a feel of how titration works to really appreciate the power of the app Ramakhula is developing.
Of course we don’t have time to define titration, so let’s not go there.

Suffice to make an example of a typical situation where titration is needed.
Suppose you want to neutralise acid with alkali.
How do you know when the reaction is complete, that is, when all the acid has reacted with the alkali?

You may choose to first mix an indicator and an acid together to make a colorless solution.
Then you slowly add an alkali, maybe one droplet at a time.
When all the acid has reacted with the alkali, a colorless indicator suddenly has colour and you know it is time to stop the reaction.

What does it mean?
Yes, you now recall, the acid has fully reacted with alkali, forming water and salt!
It is one thing to set up titration for a real-life experiment, but setting it up in a computer is a different story altogether.
It is no walk in the park.

But that is the challenge Ramakhula decided to pick up and that is the challenge he is clearly enjoying.
Back to our high school student, using her app, she picks up her acid (he is now a she for gender balance) and she gets it into a beaker.
She selects an appropriate indicator and mixes it with the acid in the beaker.
And then something really amazing happens!
She begins adding droplets of an alkali into the beaker—yes, droplets.
Goodness! Development of such droplets is no walk in the park either.
“A lot of thinking goes into programming just the droplets,” Ramakhula says.
“It is a lot of work.”

Then as the droplets continue dripping, suddenly colour changes! It is time to stop!
Titration is complete.
But here is the difference.
It is happening on your cellphone!
It is a feat!

How does Ramakhula do it?
He is the first to admit: “I’m no chemist, I am working with Dr Mosotho George to understand chemistry better.”
Then he continues: “In this area of 3D animation, you need to be more than just a software developer; you also need to be an artist.”
He thinks Basotho, specifically, can benefit more from this kind of visualisation project than other peoples.

“Basotho have been chastised for being too much on visualisation and planning and too little on implementation.”
Basotho dream, Batswana implement, is a famous saying in Lesotho.
That weakness, he says, “can in fact be our strength”.

Let’s visualise unique architecture, let’s visualise cars and planes, let’s visualise machines and, as we have already seen, let’s visualise chemical reactions, is the message of Ramakhula.

Own Correspondent

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