NORTH GREENBUSH, N.Y. (AP) — Old school: sitting under a planetarium dome gazing at a simulated Sagittarius. New school: watching smiling, singing, animated atoms zip around the dome as they journey through a falling snowflake and a stick of chewing gum.
A children’s museum near Albany is debuting something new on its big-domed screen they call a “Molecularium” show. The 20-minute digital animation piece reinterprets the traditional planetarium experience for kids as likely to stick their nose in a Game Boy as a book. The subject isn’t outer space this time, but atomic space. The movie tells the story of an oxygen atom, Oxy, and her nano pals exploring protons and electrons – a sort of science meets Shrek story for the early grades.
“This was as good as Saturday morning cartoons for them, or better,” said Jayne Architzel, executive director of the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology.
The Molecularium’s creators call it a pioneering mix of art and science. But at its heart, the high-octane show is a new answer to a question dogging many educators:
How do you get young kids interested in science?
The idea came from Linda Schadler, professor of materials science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which designed and developed the show. Schadler, who heads educational outreach for the school’s nanoscale center, wanted a way to explain molecules to kindergartners through third graders and to explain the three states of matter: gas, liquid, solid. What better way to immerse kids in those concepts than the enveloping dome of a planetarium?
An early challenge was translating textbook illustrations of molecules – those complex, twisted chains – into something digestible for young minds. Shekhar Garde, an RPI professor in charge of getting the science right, and director V. Owen Bush knew precisely what they did NOT want to do.
“Most planetarium shows I’ve ever seen there is this God-like voice that’s speaking down to you,” said Bush.
“This. Is. Nep-tune,” Garde intoned.
They decided an animated story would be a better way to reach kids.
Rabbits and ducks as easy to animate. But how do you make oxygen cute? Their answer was Oxy, a long-lashed, squeaky-voiced character who resembles an orange with a face. She and her hydrogen sidekicks Hydro and Hydra (H20, get it?) take thrill rides through different colorful atomic realms.
Atomic characters form molecules by bonding cheek-to-cheek, bounce around and break out in song verses like: “We make yoooouuu! We make all of you!” They also meet Carbon, a Hispanic atom who pronounces his name like Ramon.
It seems to work. Tara Molloy-Grocki, a teacher at nearby Guilderland Elementary School, took a group of second graders to the museum recently, ushering them into the show after a preparatory lesson on molecules at the museum.
“They were engaged and excited,” Molloy-Grocki said. “Carbon was their favorite character.”
It’s a lot of high-tech razzmatazz. But the aim of the film, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, remains every bit as educational as a sober old planetarium show. The animated atoms are essentially a sweetener to give kids a taste for science. Bush called the Molecularium a careful balance of science and magic.
Cindy Workosky of the National Science Teachers Association said that sort of innovative science instruction – she calls them lessons with a “wow factor” – are important to get kids interested in science.
“We need to be building a foundation of science so that they’re prepared when they go to middle school and high school,” said Workosky, whose group represents 55,000 science instructors from grade school to college level.
With the Molecularium show continuing its run at the museum, Garde said there are in discussions with other planetariums to take it on the road.
“Our goal is to take it to as many venues as possible,” he said.
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