Research News

The Molecular Workbench Wins SPORE Award

NSF-funded project wins award for being an outstanding online educational resource

This June, the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Molecular Workbench won the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) for its contribution as an innovative tool for science education.

The Molecular Workbench is an online, computational tool that provides digital models of atomic scale processes, using interactive lessons and simulations to model atomic and molecular processes that would otherwise be difficult to portray through static illustrations typically found in a textbook.

Science magazine awards the SPORE prize "to encourage innovation and excellence in education, as well as to encourage the use of high-quality on-line resources by students, teachers and the public."

Participants were judged by the editors of Science and a panel consisting of teachers and researchers in relevant fields. Winners were invited to write an essay describing their resources for publication in the magazine.

The world of atoms and molecules close-up

Imagine trying to represent the tiny world of atoms and molecules--how would a person actively and visually show processes at this level? How would he or she describe atoms and molecules in contexts ranging from physics to nanotechnology?

The Molecular Workbench answers these questions by using visually stimulating simulations and activities that bring the atomic and molecular world to life.

For instance, in a "self-assembly" simulation, students have the freedom to experiment with molecule positions, charges, temperatures and other variables, to discover the consequences when these variables are changed. Students can play back or re-run the simulations for further observation. Each lesson also provides embedded questions for students to reflect upon what they observed. Try a featured simulation here.

"The Molecular Workbench significantly lowers the barrier of learning obscure atomic-scale science," said Charles Xie, physicist and developer of the Molecular Workbench. "It allows instructors to bring the conceptual picture up front without intimidating their students with abstruse terminology or difficult mathematics. This focuses students on the idea, not the vocabulary or the math."

Most of the users are middle-school, high-school and college students. The Molecular Workbench allows them to "play" with different simulations related to physics, chemistry, biology, biotechnology and nanotechnology. So far, the software has over 800,000 downloads worldwide.

Unlike traditional ball-and-stick models often used for teaching molecules, the Molecular Workbench simulates processes in "real time." Students can instantaneously see what happens when they manipulate the conditions of the molecules and analyze the results.

"Our vision is that static illustrations should be replaced by visual, interactive simulations; exercises could use simulations to incorporate inquiries and discoveries; and embedded assessment should allow teachers to track student learning progression," said Xie.

According to Xie, the Molecular Workbench owes its success to meeting the needs for more effective instructional materials. Teachers cover the science of atoms and molecules and the Molecular Workbench provides a tool to help teach these concepts.

In addition, the growing field of nanotechnology calls for a thorough understanding of atoms and molecules. The Molecular Workbench will help students develop an interest in nanotechnology by introducing these atomic and molecular concepts in secondary school.

In the future Xie and his team plan to develop the Molecular Workbench "into a versatile computational platform that supports a wider scope of science," said Xie. "Decades of computational science research has generated algorithms that can be used to build computational engines for solving fundamental equations and delivering knowledge in their corresponding domains of science."

The team sees their software integrated into digital textbooks and web-based assessment. Ultimately, Xie hopes that this knowledge will be accessible to "every student."

"What is more important in education than passing down to students the greatest power and deepest wisdom brought to us by the most brilliant minds in the history of science and engineering?" said Xie.

"Now that the information technology has empowered us to deliver this through computing, an unprecedented opportunity to revitalize science and engineering education using this enabling technology is right upon us."

The Molecular Workbench is funded, in part, by the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL) and, in part, by the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program of the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE).