Inside Rensselaer
* Linda Schadler
Using “Stealth Education” To Increase Science Literacy
It was the mischievous grins and sparkles in her colleagues’ eyes that reinforced to Linda Schadler that she was on to something good.

It all started in 2001 when Schadler — professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer — had been talking with the director of a local children’s museum about the potential for creating an engaging, fun exhibit to teach kids about atoms and molecules. Understanding these basic building blocks of the universe, she said, is critical to comprehending the environmental, energy, and health issues that we face as a nation.

Something clicked when the conversation took an astronomical turn and the director showed Schadler a model of the planetarium that was slated to be built at the museum.

“The idea for using the planetarium as a venue to teach about atoms and molecules just popped into my head,” Schadler said. “And once I had the vision, I couldn’t let it go.”

And that’s how Molecularium — literally a planetarium show about molecules — was born.

Schadler worked for more than two years to secure funding and build a team to bring her vision to fruition, and her efforts paid off in 2004 with the release of the first Molecularium show, Riding Snowflakes. The show, formatted to be played in digital domes such as planetariums, featured animation based on scientifically accurate molecular simulations, and garnered much acclaim.

The Molecularium team consisted of Schadler, joined by colleagues Shekhar Garde and Richard Siegel, both fellow professors at Rensselaer. The trio is credited as the movie’s executive producers. The team enlisted the help of a production studio that would eventually adopt the name Nanotoon Entertainment. Nanotoon’s V. Owen Bush and Kurt Przybilla have served as writer/director and writer/producer, respectively. Not long after Riding Snowflakes, the Molecularium team regrouped with an ambitious plan to make the next movie even better.

The team’s second show, Molecules to the MAX, is currently in post-production and will be released later this year in IMAX and other giant screen cinemas around the world. Not constrained to the confines of planetarium theaters, Molecules to the MAX has the potential to reach a much broader audience. Nearly double the length of Riding Snowflakes, the new film builds on the same core concepts of interweaving scientifically accurate visuals and information with a fun storyline and catchy songs revolving around the exploits of Oxy, Hydro, Hydra, Carbón, and other memorable characters.

The ultimate goal of the Molecularium project and both shows, Schadler said, is to boost global science literacy and energize more young people to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering. By carefully engineering the characters, plot, look, and feel of the film, the Molecularium team sought to create a movie where viewers would get swept up in the storyline and learn or re-learn a ton of important science — without even trying.

“I think adults will learn just as much as children will from Molecules to the Max,” Schadler said. “Just being able to picture the atomic world accurately will prompt people young and old to ask new questions about the world around them.”

And as any engineer or scientist would expect, the Molecularium team has hard data to back up their claims. Around the time when Riding Snowflakes was released, they tested groups of children, teenagers, and adults before and after watching the movie.

“Results of the tests were crystal clear: children had a fundamentally better understanding of atoms, molecules, and polymers coming out of the movie than they did going in,” Schadler said.

The ultimate goal of the Molecularium project and both shows, Schadler said, is to boost global science literacy and energize more young people to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering.

While Molecularium hasn’t directly affected Schadler’s materials science research in her laboratory, it has certainly given her new tools to explain her research and other scientific concepts without the conversation turning overly complicated.

“Personally, working on Molecularium has really impacted my children and how I communicate with my children,” she said. “Now that they’ve seen the show, when they ask me a scientific question or a question about my research, I can explain it to them on a level that I couldn’t explain it to them before.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 3, Number 2, February 13, 2009
©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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