By Richard W. Siegel, Ph.D., director of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Nanotechnology Center and innovator behind The Molecularium® Project
How it began:
In 2001, a group of us scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) was looking at ways to get students interested in atoms and molecules and expand the work of our nanotechnology center that had been newly funded by the National Science Foundation.
A decade later with a Digital Dome show, a Giant Screen film, an online virtual amusement park, and free educator resources for grades K-4 and 5-8, we are now helping teachers change the way science is taught and teaching students in elementary and middle schools what science looks like.
In the early days we used vector art. It wasn’t pretty, but the simple seven-minute planetarium show we created was very popular at the local museum. It proved to us that atoms and molecules could be entertaining and educational to kids. The feedback from students, parents and teachers told us that they were learning a lot. It was at that point that we knew we were onto something, and that made us more determined than ever to help students learn in a different way. If we could capture the attention of children using rough graphics, what could we do with a Hollywood-style production?
We went to work asking more questions, conducting research and, eventually, brought together a team of world-class scientists from RPI’s Nanotechnology Center, artists, writers, animators and filmmakers to launch The Molecularium® Project. The project is the flagship outreach and education effort of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Nanotechnology Center aimed at boosting global science literacy and encouraging young people to pursue careers in STEM.
So we began our journey into the nanoscale universe! Our ride through space on Molecularium, the fantastic spaceship, has taken us on many adventures. First stop: the 23-minute, award-winning Digital Dome film, Molecularium – Riding Snowflakes. We introduced the atom characters Oxy, Carbón, Hydra and Mel, who take a ride from the atomic structure of a snowflake to the far reaches of space aboard the Molecularium. With help from Mel, the ship’s computer, and Carbón, a passionate carbon atom, the crew explores the secret worlds within everyday objects.
Second landing: Molecules to the MAX!, the 42-minute, animated 3D Giant Screen film, continues to show overseas on select IMAX screens and has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese. Oxy, Captain of the Molecularium, is dispatched from the Unified Field of Atoms on an expedition to discover the secret of life on Earth. Along with her crew – Mel, the uptight computer, and Hydra and Hydro, the bungling hydrogen twins - they have many misadventures exploring the Earth's atmosphere and the cycle of water molecules, through clouds, snowflakes and raindrops. Lost in the far reaches of outer space, Oxy and her crew are rescued by Carbón and his gang of intergalactic carbon atoms. With lots of bravado and a little luck, Carbón is able to pilot the ship back to Earth.
The familiar characters Oxy, Hydra and Mel from our immersive films are transformed into game based characters in the online amusement park in NanoSpace®, winner of the Center for Digital Education 2013 Best of the Web award. We created NanoSpace to be a free, interactive and entertaining website utilizing colorful animations and eye-catching designs, all set in an amusement park atmosphere.
The more than 25 fun, interactive and educational games, short animated films and activities provide an engaging environment to demystify molecular science. Instead of textbooks, teachers and students can use games like BuildEm!, Periodic Memory and microLAB.
Educating though Film, Games and Activities
Science literacy – in every capacity – has never before been so important to our nation. When learning is fun, it increases a child’s capacity to absorb and retain knowledge. I’ve witnessed that through interactions with kids watching the films or playing the games. Teachers are using the films, short animated videos, educator resource guides and our website (www.molecularium.com) in basic science and chemistry classes, as well as in science camps and after school programs, to create a more exciting environment to teach students about states of matter, DNA, size scales, molecules and more.
Our next stop: Libraries! We are thrilled to be launching the Molecules to the MAX! DVD exclusively to libraries and to be rolling out the 3D Blu-Ray version in early 2015. The DVD can be pre-ordered through distributors including Baker and Taylor, Midwest Tapes and AV Café. Public Performance Rights (Screening license) can be purchased at edu.passionriver.com/molecules-to-the-max.
We’ve proven that entertainment can enable science learning. I like to call it Stealth Education – we capture students’ attention with fun and entertainment without them realizing that they are learning about what makes up our world
Think Molecules to the MAX! may be a fit for your learning environment? Check out the trailer above and click here to read the reviews, order, and learn more.