Gas laws are generally taught in high school chemistry. Students learn that Boyle’s law, for instance, can be expressed as P_{1}V_{1}=P_{2}V_{2}, where P is pressure and V is volume.

From the equation, it’s clear that there is an inverse relationship between the gas pressure and volume, but do students understand the molecular mechanism behind this relationship?

Since students are programmed to plug and chug, if you give them, say, P_{1}, V_{1}, and P_{2}, they can find the numeric value of V_{2}. Although students can get the correct answer, teachers have told us that their students don’t really understand the gas laws because they don’t have a mental model of what’s happening. Gases are, after all, invisible! Nor can students see volume or pressure.

Molecular Workbench makes the gases, volume, and pressure visible. With a new set of Next-Generation Molecular Workbench interactives, students can experiment with increasing the pressure on a gas to see why the gas volume decreases.

The “What is Pressure?” interactive (above) shows the inside (yellow atoms) and outside (pink atoms) of a balloon. (Even the velocities of the individual atoms are visible with vectors!) The green barrier represents the wall of the balloon.

Students learn that pressure is nothing more than molecular collisions with a barrier. In the beginning, atoms hitting the balloon wall on either side move it just a tiny bit—transferring some of their kinetic energy to the barrier. At equilibrium, the balloon wall remains (relatively) stationary. (Go ahead and run it to see!)

But if you add atoms to the balloon, the balloon wall moves out; more atoms means that there is increased pressure pushing outwards on the barrier. Since the number of atoms on the outside of the balloon hasn’t changed, the pressure pushing inwards is the same as it was before. With unbalanced forces, you get net movement.

With barriers, we can also measure the pressure caused by those molecular collisions.

In the “Volume-Pressure Relationship” interactive (above), students see a visual representation of Boyle’s law.

Other models allow students to investigate all the relationships of Charles’s law (V_{1}T_{2}=V_{2}T_{1}), Gay-Lussac’s law (P_{1}/T_{1}=P_{2}/T_{2}), and Avogadro’s law (V_{1}/n_{1}=V_{2}/n_{2}).

And, of course, all of these relationships together make up the Ideal Gas Law (PV=nRT). Explore gas laws today with some HTML5 molecular models!