Moving Crystallographic Instruction into the Digital Age


Perception and understanding of three dimensional crystal structures is a source of difficulty for many introductory students of mineralogy. Traditionally, physical models of crystal structures (e.g., "ball and stick" and polyhedral models) have been used to help students better visualize the complex arrangements of atoms within crystalline materials. With the advent of newer computational and graphics technology, computerized virtual modelling of crystal structures and access to large crystal structure databases are now available to supplement traditional tools and methods of crystallographic instruction.

We believe that the full potential of crystal structure databases and visualization software for enhancing the teaching of crystallography has not been fully explored. In most mineralogy classes, such tools are used to illustrate concepts in crystallography and crystal-chemistry, but these sessions are mostly controlled by the instructor. The students may or may not have the ability to manipulate the crystal models themselves to more fully interact with the material and form their own learning experiences; such direct interaction with models has been found to effectively aid spatial learning [Gabel and Sherwood, 1980] . Undergraduate use of online crystal structure databases is also limited, if they are used at all. Finally there is a general lack of creative, practical exercises and activities which use learning-centered, inquiry-based approaches in which students access, investigate, and interpret crystal structure data for themselves.

What is the purpose of this site?

This site will help college-level educators

  • to appreciate the benefits and challenges of using crystal structure databases in their mineralogy courses
  • to locate potentially-useful crystal structure databases, highlighting differing strengths, features, ease of use, and potential educational applications
  • to download, contribute, and comment on examples of how crystal structure databases can be applied in educational settings and activities (e.g., lectures, problem sets, in-class exercises, lab exercises, student research projects, etc.)

This site will enable undergraduate and graduate students

  • to locate and navigate crystal structure databases and visualization software, as well as evaluate, screen, and manipulate various types of data available from these sites, many of which were not originally designed with student needs and abilities in mind

Finally, this site will motivate database and software developers 

  • to consider and plan for educational applications and requirements as they continue to develop crystallography databases and software

This site was written by Kent Ratajeski (Department of Geosciences, University of West Georgia) as part of the DLESE Community Services Project.