“Molecular Playground” opens in Springfield

By Alyssa Creamer

Inspired by the installation of a University of Massachusetts professor’s vision of displaying molecules in a way that blends art with science, the Springfield Museum of Science opened a “molecular playground” last week.

Craig Martin, the acting head of the UMass chemistry department and chief developer of the “molecular playground,” supervised the Springfield Museum’s playground’s installation. It is modeled after UMass’ interactive molecular playground, which was designed by Martin and is located in the Integrated Sciences Building’s atrium.

“This isn’t what I mainly do as a chemist,” said Martin in a phone interview. “I’m mostly doing research and teaching. This was something I just couldn’t resist doing … because there are lots of exciting things about molecules, like the beauty of their structures.”

The three-dimensional molecular images displayed are colorful, in order to distinguish the different structural aspects of a molecule.

“[The projector] conveys that there are lots of different kinds of molecules, from small molecules in drugs and toxins to larger proteins in the body,” said Martin.

A few years ago, Martin noticed an interactive Travelers advertisement on the walls of the Bradley International Airport in Hartford. He believed individuals’ abilities to contort the ad’s projected images could become a platform molecules would translate well onto. This became the basic concept for UMass’ molecular playground. Children can be seen playing with the Travelers ad on YouTube.

One of the project’s developers, UMass computer science graduate student Adam Williams, used an open source program which allows the projector to show the molecules, said Martin. Williams could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

Since its introduction in 2009, UMass students have manipulated images of molecular structures on the projection because of an infrared camera mounted behind viewers with “shadow-sensing” technology, according to a University release.

“I’ve had lots of students tell me that they walk by and play with it all the time,” said Martin.

“I really think it’s an awesome idea, especially to have it in a museum,” said UMass biochemistry and molecular biology and chemistry major Phillip McGilvray, 21. “One of the toughest things to visualize in chemistry is the molecules themselves, because they have a three-dimensional structure that people don’t really think about a lot.”

“They think in terms of carbon, nitrogen or bonds or the overall of what a molecule does, but really it’s the structure of the 3-D shapes … that determines how they function, especially with proteins and enzymes. It’s a great learning tool,” continued McGilvray.

McGilvray, who is also a member of UMass’ biochemistry club, said he also finds the playground to be a “fun” way to learn about molecular structure.

“It’s fun to be able to twirl it with your hand,” he said. “It’s very sci-fi, very Star Wars, to have this molecule in your hand and turn it and play with it.”

Martin says the target audience of this mechanism is “just about everybody,” especially “non-scientists,” and at the science museum, the playground’s simplicity allows young children to re-size and control the molecules’ movements.

“I don’t care that I teach [people] any specific chemical principles with this,” said Martin, “but rather, I just want people to get excited about molecules.”

“I think it has been effective in presenting molecular geometry in a more accessible fashion,” said Blake Foster, a UMass chemistry major. “Obviously someone isn’t going to flip through a chemistry or biology textbook to look at the pictures of Lewis dot diagrams and electron configurations or basic cell structure. But when particulate level matter is projected in a large, colored, three-dimensional environment, it can pique the interest of any passerby.”

Springfield Museum of Science Public Relations Manager Sara Orr said in an e-mail interview that the museum is “always looking for new ways to engage visitors with science.”

 

“The Molecular Playground helps illustrate the concept that even the tiniest particles have a distinct shape and structure,” continued Orr. “And even though the science might be too sophisticated for younger kids, they can still have fun manipulating the colorful images.”

The museum’s director, David Stier, was unavailable for comment; however, Orr said he was “very involved” with the partnership’s process.

When not being manipulated by individuals, the molecules are projected in a predetermined sequence. Martin says it is almost like a “playlist” of molecules. Williams’ end-of-semester goal, according to Martin, is to develop a database of molecules that other schools who install playgrounds will be able to select from and display from their own customizable playlist of molecular projections.

A few colleges across the nation, such as Penn State and St. Olaf College in Minnesota, have now installed molecular playgrounds based on Martin’s model, while many other schools, including high schools, have contacted Martin “expressing interest” in the project. The only international school to date that has also installed a playground based on Martin’s instructions is Japan’s Okinawa Institute of Technology.

“We’re hoping to have more installations go up in the future,” said Martin. “The whole idea in designing this project was to make it relatively inexpensive. I’d like to see it in high schools and all levels of schools.”

Installation costs can be as little as a grand, according to Martin. However, depending on the installation space – whether the space is larger or well-lit – determines the quality, and therefore, expense, of the projector being chosen. Martin said high-end projectors can cost upwards of several thousand dollars, and the brighter and bigger the space is, the more expensive the projector will need to be.

According to a University release, Springfield’s playground’s projector displays the molecular images on a six-by-nine-foot projection area. UMass’ is slightly larger.

The projects at UMass and in Springfield were each supported with special grants from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, according to the University release.

Alyssa Creamer can be reached at [email protected]