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Rensselaer’s Molecularium(SM) Teaches Kids What “Matters”

A new animated program is designed to spark children’s interest in learning about atoms and molecules using planetariums in a new way for science education.   By Peter Dizikes     Printer-friendly PDF version

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* Schoolchildren love field trips to planetariums, and for good reason: Through the magic of special effects, they can explore the distant universe. Now a group of Rensselaer scientists, along with a New York City-based experience design firm, have developed a new twist on this enduring institution: The Molecularium(SM) project, a show featuring a novel planetarium-format animated program, the “Riding Snowflakes” show, that helps schoolchildren explore the universe as it exists at the atomic scale. 

Due to debut this fall, the show “Riding Snowflakes” (one of two in production), as well as the Molecularium project concept as a whole, is in good measure the idea of Linda Schadler, Ph.D., a professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer with a career-long interest in educational outreach programs for primary and secondary-school students. Looking for new methods of introducing kids to molecular science, Schadler began pondering ways to adapt the planetarium concept for her own field about five years ago, while keeping a central question in mind. “If you can go to the stars, why can’t you go down to the molecular level?” Schadler asks.

The Molecularium project is part of the educational and outreach program of Rensselaer’s National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures. Rensselaer’s NSEC is directed by Richard Siegel, the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer. The Rensselaer faculty involved credit Siegel and the Institute for supporting the project since its inception.

Other like-minded Rensselaer faculty members have joined in the project. Daniel Gall and Pawel Keblinski, assistant and associate professors, respectively, of materials science and engineering, are acting as scientific consultants. Shekhar Garde, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, oversees the scientific accuracy of the show. Garde thinks the Molecularium project is a long-overdue way of bringing excitement to the study of atoms and molecules – which, after all, are the building blocks of everything in our world.

“Galaxies, to me, are too far away and I don’t think about them every day,” says Garde. “I drink water every day. Wouldn’t it be fun to jump into it at the molecular level and see what it looks like?”

To do that, Schadler, Garde and other colleagues first implemented the Molecularium project in 2002, with a seven-minute visual presentation on molecules they liken to “line drawings.” It may have been a little primitive technically, but, says Schadler, young students were “learning a tremendous amount” from the show. Encouraged, the Molecularium project team applied for, and received this spring, a $660,000 National Science Foundation supplemental grant to the NSEC to take the project to a new level, by funding the production of the shows and a projection system for the planetarium-dome format.

To direct the show, Rensselaer hired Vishwanath Bush of the New York City-based experience design firm Tektraxadex. The company recently formed an offshoot production company called Nanotoons, which is “dedicated to the creation of a nanoscale cartooniverse,” according to Bush.

Bush – whose previous credits include “Sonic-Vision,” an animated musical show for the American Museum of Natural History – is now completing the “Riding Snowflakes” show along with his co-writer and producer, Kurt Przybilla, and a crew numbering about 25 people, including animators, artists, composers, engineers, Rensselaer graduate and undergraduate students, and faculty.

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