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How RPI developed show about molecules, atoms

In 2000, I was charged with developing a K-12 outreach program for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Nanotechnology Center. I decided that perhaps an interaction with a museum would be the most effective way to get out our message — which is that everything is made of atoms and molecules, and the world of atoms and molecules is both fascinating and critical to our understanding of global warming, clean water, a sustainable planet, energy, health, and food safety.

If everyone understood more about atoms and molecules, I’m convinced that we would make better public policy decisions. In addition, we need more students to enter the fields of science and engineering, and we were hoping to catch their imaginations with our program.

So I went to the local children’s museum, now called the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology in the Rensselaer Technology Park, North Greenbush, and met with the director. Something clicked when the conversation took an astronomical turn and the director showed me a model of the planetarium that was slated to be built at the museum. It was at that point that the idea for using the planetarium as a venue to teach about atoms and molecules just popped into my head. Once I had the vision, I couldn’t let it go. I kept imagining a trip down into the amazing world of atoms and molecules and immersing the audience in that world.

I started to share the vision with my colleagues, and two of them, Shekhar Garde and Dick Siegel, were as captivated as I was. We formed a team and used funds raised from the National Science Foundation to make a pilot show. Shekhar coined the term Molecularium — literally a planetarium show about molecules. As soon as he said it, I knew that he completely understood the vision and his creativity has been an integral part of the project. Dick’s artistic sense, and experience with management and marketing have also been critical.

Another essential component was a decision I made early on about which artists to work with. A Rensselaer undergraduate was working at the children’s museum and he convinced me to work with a free-lance director instead of working with a large company. He was absolutely right. That free-lance director was Owen Bush, who hired a talented leadership team to create the show. He hired Kurt Przybilla as writer/producer and Chris Harvey as art director and together they assembled a remarkable team of artists and computer animators to bring the adventures of the Molecularium to life.

OK, now imagine three engineers sitting down with three artists and trying to make a digital movie. Hmmmm…..

As you probably guessed, it was both fantastic and challenging as we taught each other science, art, the planetarium film business, and how egos work in each of our cultures. However, the results were tremendous.

When the audience is immersed in the atomic world, they travel with atomic characters with “interesting” personalities who sing songs at the drop of a hat, and are seeing images created by Shekhar Garde’s molecular dynamics simulations, that have been imported into the animation software. The audience is seeing as close to real science about the world of atoms and molecules as is possible in this venue.

In 2005, our efforts paid off with the release of the first Molecularium show, "Riding Snowflakes." The show, formatted for digital domes, such as planetariums, garnered much acclaim. It has now been translated into Korean and Arabic, and is showing all over the world, including at the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology. "Riding Snowflakes" is aimed at children in grades K-5, but teaches everyone — adults and kids alike — three key concepts:

— Everything is made of atoms and molecules (even you!)

— There are three states of matter (solids slow, liquids flow, gas is fast)

— Polymers are very long chains molecules.

Through Dick Siegel’s efforts, we found distributors and marketed the show. Dick met with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Trustee Curtis Priem on one of his trips, and Curtis was so fascinated with the show that he offered to fund a version for large screen cinemas (commonly known as Imax). This was an outstanding chance for us to improve on the show and bring the content to a whole new level.

Our second show, "Molecules to the MAX!," is playing in 3-D at Proctors and in cities around the world including Mexicali and Shanghai. Proctors was the 3-D premiere though! 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.

I have to say, though, that for me the most rewarding part has been the change I have seen in my own children’s understanding of the world around them. Because they started to see versions of the show starting at age 4, they have an intuitive understanding of atoms and molecules that I certainly didn’t have until I was much older. I can explain the physical world around them in a much more scientific way than I ever thought possible. I hope the show is doing the same for other children and that they think of the world in a whole new way. Even if "Molecules to the MAX" and "Riding Snowflakes" don’t excite them about a career in science or engineering, they will be better-informed citizens of the world and will hopefully help create policies based on scientific understanding and not political rhetoric!

Linda Schadler is associate dean of engineering and professor of materials science and engineering at RPI.

GE has donated funds to sponsor a series of hands-on public workshops for ticketholders designed to extend and reinforce the scientific content of "Molecules to the MAX! 3-D." Each workshop will be led by two teaching artists and will take place following the 11 a.m. showings of the movie — on select Saturdays — and will accommodate up to 60 children each, accompanied by an adult or parent. The learning sessions, titled GIANT Film Family Workshops: Molecules Exposed, are based on the content of "Molecules to the MAX! 3-D," and explore the secret worlds within everyday objects. The workshops are free to ticket holders to the film. They are for ages 6 to 9.

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