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Stealth Education

Science Literacy 101

Molecules to the MAX and the Molecularium brand are owned and managed by Rensselaer, and the new movie was made possible by a generous gift from Rensselaer Trustee Curtis Priem ’82, co-founder of leading visual computing technologies firm NVIDIA.

“The Molecularium project is a perfect example of how highly technical information can be communicated in a simple, accessible form that even children can understand,” Priem says. “This is also the essence for why we undertook the Rensselaer Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC)—to figure out how to communicate information that cannot easily be conveyed by traditional forms, and to teach students how to communicate.”

Along with being an excellent vehicle for training students for careers in computer graphics and entertainment technology, Priem says the Molecularium project is also a novel way for helping address the “Quiet Crisis” and the lack of students in the United States interested in science, engineering, and technology. Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson has long spoken of the Quiet Crisis, which stems from the gap between the nation’s growing need for technically skilled workers, and its production of them.

“The goal of Molecularium is to make technology fun at the very youngest ages,” Priem says. “We want to see elementary school children pull the education system along by asking their teachers about nanotechnology and string theory, instead of those students having to wait until college to learn about such topics.”

Molecularium also benefits from ongoing support from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The project has become the flagship educational outreach project of Rensselaer’s NSF-funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures.

“Molecularium has the ability to introduce children to the nanoscale concepts at the atomic and molecular levels through exciting films and music while using rigorous concepts and molecular modeling simulations,” says Mihail C. Roco, NSF Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology and director of the NSF National Nanotechnology Initiative.

“Making these relatively complex concepts accessible and fun encourages children to explore and continue to learn about amazing discoveries at the nanoscale, and what engineers may do with them. Easy conversations open a window to a scientific curiosity that may last for a lifetime.”

Molecules to the MAX is the second production to be released under the Rensselaer-owned Molecularium brand. The first Molecularium movie, Riding Snowflakes, funded by the NSF, debuted in 2004 and was created to be projected in planetariums and other digital domes. The movie has won several awards, is still in distribution worldwide, and is in the process of being translated into several different languages.

Along with Siegel, the other Molecularium and Molecules to the MAX executive producers are Shekhar Garde, head of Rensselaer’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Linda Schadler, professor of materials science and engineering. The trio regrouped with Riding Snowflakes production company Nanotoon Entertainment to make the new movie. The group has also signed on the Toronto-based industry veterans SK Films to distribute and market Molecules to the MAX.

The original idea for Molecularium dates back to 2001. Schadler was talking with the director of a Troy-area 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, which Schadler thinks about every day in her research and studies, is critical to comprehending the environmental, energy, and health issues that we face as a nation.

When the director showed Schadler a model of the planetarium that was slated to be built at the museum, something clicked. “The idea for using the planetarium as a venue to teach about atoms and molecules just popped into my head,” Schadler says. “And once I had the vision, I couldn’t let it go.”

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

The NSF NSEC founded at Rensselaer in 2001 provided the initial funding for Schadler to realize her vision, and the project gained momentum when Riding Snowflakes was released in early 2004. Schadler, Garde, Siegel, and the Nanotoon team quickly set their sights on creating a larger, more ambitious sequel, which became Molecules to the MAX. The trio collaborated with Nanotoon’s V. Owen Bush, writer/ director, and Kurt Przybilla, writer/producer, to create the story and script of the new movie; the team also worked with art director Chris Harvey.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.