I vividly remember buying my first molecular model kit in the Binghamton University book store in the summer of 2002. I was preparing to take organic chemistry, which I had heard was a tough subject; it was notorious as a weeding out course. The required materials were an organic chemistry textbook and a box, manufactured by a British company, filled with colorful atom and bond pieces. I remember opening it when I got back to my dorm room and was fascinated by the different geometries that were possible by connecting the atoms in different ways. Throughout the summer, my professor, an adjunct from Cornell, gave me my first instruction in what I consider high-level science. This was the course I had been waiting for all my life—a subject that finally began to explain why things were the way they are, and how complex materials are made from simpler ones.
After each class, I camped out in the Binghamton nature preserve. I sat by the lake, studying my organic textbook, copying my notes, and using the models to build the molecules that we were studying. The class was tough; I got an A in Organic Chemistry I, and only a B+ in Organic Chemistry II, but I was hooked on the subject. When the school year began, I joined an organic chemistry research lab, and began taking every organic and biochemistry course the university offered. A subject I didn’t know anything about until I was 20 years old has now become my profession.
This week I had the honor of presenting a 90 minute teaching workshop at the National Science Teachers Association national conference in Saint Louis. The workshop was sponsored by Molymod, that British company that manufactures the models I had first used in college—and by now have amassed a very large collection! I came to know the owner of Molymod, Philip Spiring, after sending him my first Biochemistry Literacy for Kids documentary. When he offered to sponsor a workshop for me at the NSTA, I jumped at the opportunity. It was an amazing experience talking to teachers who came to the Molymod booth, and learning more about Philip’s family’s business. He knows, perhaps more than anyone else, the power that molecular modeling has to explain the world, and to make chemistry a source of fascination rather than fear.
So many teachers who came to the Molymod booth and to my workshop had grown up with molecular modeling, but for those who had not, seeing them build for the first time reminded me of my experiences in college; the fact that virtually everything in the world can be modeled with the kits gives them a kind of power that no other learning tool can match. Even Queen Elizabeth loves her molecular models; Philip gave her a special edition diamond structure, made of transparent carbon atoms and white bonds, specially designed for her Diamond Jubilee. One encounter at the conference stood out to me—a blind chemistry teacher came to the booth, someone who Philip knew well. She wanted to see the latest kit that was designed to teach balancing equations. It was no problem for her to recognize the assembled chemical structures, based on their bonding geometries alone. I later found out that she teaches blind and sighted students. Organic chemistry doesn’t have to be a subject that is exclusive, something that weeds out a certain kind of learner. If done properly, it can give everyone some measure of understanding about how their world is put together, and how things that are unseeable can be seen.