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Press Release
Using “Stealth Education” To Increase Science Literacy
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Promotional poster for the new IMAX production, "Molecules to the MAX." The movie, produced by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, features background animations that are scientifically accurate and derived from cutting-edge, supercomputer-powered molecular modeling simulations. Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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 – a leading nanotechnology and materials science expert and professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – 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, Kurt Przybilla, and Chris Harvey have served as writer/director, writer/producer, and art director, 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 by 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 teens and adults did better, too.”

Right from the start of the project, Schadler said the team knew the film should have three primary educational themes: the three states of matter, polymers, and the fact that everything is made out of atoms and molecules. Water was a natural fit to illustrate the first theme. Showing the Oxy, Hydro, Hydra, and other characters shrinking down and zooming into and out of different everyday objects such as a coin or a toy is a key story device for conveying the third message. The movie, it was decided, would also prominently feature polymer chains.

“Nanotoon helped realize the vision, by creating the characters of Oxy, Hydro, and Hydra, who help Carbón in his search for life. This creative tool was perfect for showing the audience that everything – even life – is made up of individual atoms and molecules,” Schadler said. This “search for life” storyline is a major component of Molecules to the MAX.

Throughout the ongoing collaboration, Schadler and the Molecularium team were required to seek out a middle ground between their respective languages of education, art, and science.

“I think the most challenging aspects of working on both films has been the communication between the engineers, the artists, and the computers, in that we keep running across problems that we didn’t expect because we’ve never done this before – and, in fact, no one has ever done this before,” Schadler said. “Shekhar’s challenges in creating the molecular landscapes requested by the artists, but keeping the science correct, while ensuring that the computation was completed within a reasonable time frame, led to some of our best laughs. The artists wanted 22nd century computation from our 21st century tools. We’ve learned to communicate well in a hybrid, shared language. That’s been our biggest challenge, but probably also one of our biggest rewards.”

An early digital version of Molecules to the MAX was screened last autumn in New York at an industry convention, and the full IMAX version will be shown to theater owners and potential film buyers in California next month at the Giant Screen Cinema Association 2009 Film Expo. The Molecularium team and giant-screen movie distributor SK Films are working to build up a buzz and land deals to show the film in IMAX theaters across the country and around the world. Planning for a national public premiere later in the year is still under way.

Molecules to the MAX and Molecularium are owned, funded, and managed by Rensselaer, with additional funding support from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The project is supported by a generous gift from Rensselaer Trustee Curtis Priem ’82, co-founder of NVIDIA, a world leader in visual computing technologies. Since Schadler first developed the idea for Molecularium in 2001, the program has become the flagship educational outreach project of Rensselaer’s NSF-funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures.

The Molecularium team is also looking to bring Oxy, Hydra, and Hydro to the small screen. The group is in discussions to move the project forward and reach out to more people by bringing the new movie to television, creating new Molecularium shows for television, and also making the new Molecularium content available on DVD.

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.”


Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) -

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Sat, Jun 27, 2009, 11:39 am CDT
An absolutely fabulous idea - makes science "real" to a very visual generation. Good work!
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