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Otterbein professor’s chemistry resource gains international recognition

Otterbein professor’s chemistry resource gains international recognition

By: Cameron West ‘19

Otterbein Professor Dean Johnston’s website, Symmetry@Otterbein, is a chemistry resource for students and educators that illustrates the complexity of molecular and crystallographic symmetry. National and international viewers, contributing to over 10,000 visitors per week, recognize the online content for its valuable contribution to the chemistry community.

Johnston developed the website in 2000 after struggling to visualize the concept of symmetry with his students. The first draft included a tutorial section without the current models or illustrations.  

“Some people would say ‘I had an itch,’” Johnston said. “I needed a better way to demonstrate this for my students.”

After receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2006, Johnston expanded the website’s ability with simulations and interactive elements. The “Symmetry Gallery” hosts a variety of three-dimensional models, allowing students and teachers to manipulate variables and demonstrate abstract phenomena. The “Symmetry Challenge” is a practice tool that asks users to respond to various prompts.

In 2017, the Symmetry@Otterbein pages received over 440,000 visitors from over 150 counties. Almost 60 percent of views came from outside of the U.S. 

“In terms of chemistry - if someone has heard of Otterbein, it’s because of this,” Johnston said.

The website receives many inquiries with comments, questions and feedback. Johnston’s work is also linked from numerous textbooks and online video lectures to demonstrate specific symmetry properties.

“Sometimes it’s a student trying to get more help or it’s someone thanking me,” Johnston said.

The most notable website comment was from University of Goettingen (Germany) Professor George M. Sheldrick, one of the most cited chemists in the field.

“I recently discovered Symmetry@Otterbein, which is a very nice web-based point-group tutorial with molecules and examples,” Sheldrick said in the online comment. “It uses JMOL to display the molecules and their symmetry elements. I am planning to use it for teaching next term.”

Johnston joined the Otterbein Department of Chemistry in 1995. He serves as the department chair.

“I love teaching at Otterbein,” Johnston said. “But, there’s a satisfaction knowing that my work is used by students from around the world.”


Learn more about Symmetry@Otterbein and the Otterbein University Department of Chemistry.