chemical education

Molecules in Minecraft




Children should be playing more computer games in school. That idea might enrage you if you think kids today already spend too much time staring at screens or if you are already sick of your offspring’s incessant prattling about fighting zombies and the like. But hear me out.

Specifically, I think more children should be playing the online game Minecraft. Minecraft is like a digital version of Lego in which players can construct everything from simple houses to intricate fantasy cathedrals and even complex machines such as mechanical computers. There is no intrinsic aim to the game. Like all good ways of sparking a child’s imagination, it requires them to set their own goals.

But Minecraft is much more than just a game. Used carefully it can also be a powerful educational tool. It allows young people to create and explore places that are completely inaccessible by other means. Within the blocky world, they can roam around historical sites, delve into the geology beneath their feet or fly through the chambers of a heart, and much more besides.

The rich resources of these virtual worlds, coupled with the educational version of the game, allow teachers to immerse young people in a comfortable but exciting learning environment. Minecraft has the ability to bring just about any conceivable structure to the classroom, bedroom or sofa of every player.

Creating complex structures

One of the types of structure I’m particularly passionate is that of proteins. These tiny molecular machines fascinate me. They control just about every biological process in your cells and knit your body together. From replicating your DNA and forming the bases of your skin, hair and connective tissue, to digesting food, fighting infections and transporting oxygen around your blood, proteins do it all.

And just like man-made machines, proteins have to be precisely built if they are to do their jobs. A small part out of place, whether a nut in a car left loose by an errant mechanic, or an atom in a protein mutated by UV light, can cause the whole mechanism to fail. Sometimes this will have disastrous consequences: a failed brake in your vehicle, or cancerous cells in your body.

You don’t have to be interested in biochemistry and its implications to appreciate that proteins are beautiful wonders of nature, just as you can appreciate the elegant design of a car without knowing how it works. The difference is that you can see wonderfully designed cars all the time. But where could you marvel at the structure of a protein? How about Minecraft?

Thanks to the work of my chemistry students and the support of the Royal Society of Chemistry, that is now possible. MolCraft is a world where the majestic helices of myoglobin rise above you. Where you can explore this massive molecule and its iron centre that carries oxygen around your muscles. Or, if you prefer you can fly down a pore through which water molecules normally flow across cell membranes.

Myoglobin in Minecraft.

In MolCraft, anyone can explore the building blocks of these incredible natural nano-machines. You can discover how just 20 chemical building blocks can result in the astonishing diversity of structures and functions that are required to hold living things together.

Histidine as seen in Minecraft.

Histidine as seen by a chemist.

There are plenty of accessible molecular visualisation tools, both physical and virtual. But now we’ve used Minecraft to turn the process of exploring and learning about molecules into a game. MolCraft contains a scavenger hunt, quizzes and clues dotted around the world that can be solved with the help of information found during players’ explorations.

Imagine a science lesson where the class is let lose in Minecraft with instructions to find a set of objects hidden on key parts of molecules. Upon retrieving them the teacher will know which molecules each student has explored and what questions they may have answered to find the objects. All this time, the children think they have just been playing a game.

As well as making MolCraft available to download for free, we’re also working on ways to further integrate the software into education. One idea is to turn it into a complete online learning environment, where students can complete coursework, write assignments, take part in quizzes or help developing other teaching resources, all within the game. Their tutors can then see their work and send them feedback while still immersed in the Minecraft world.

Posing in front of glycine.

Using Minecraft for teaching doesn’t have to stop at proteins. Our other Minecraft-related projects are allowing students to explore and understand deserted medieval villages or reconstruct the architecture of Hull and there’s much more in the pipeline. The only limits are the imagination of teachers and students.

The Conversation

Mark Lorch, Senior Lecturer in Biological Chemistry, Associate Dean for Engagement , University of Hull and Joel Mills, Technology enhanced education, University of Hull

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

By October 30, 2015 4 comments chemical education

Review: Chemistry Sets fit for the 21st Century.



As a kid I loved my chemistry set. Many an afternoon was whiled away in my dad’s shed, totally ignoring the set’s instructions and randomly mixing the contents of the various bottles. To be honest I can’t really remember learning much chemistry, beyond the fact that it was possible to generate some pretty noxious fumes.

I guess its that sort of behaviour that rang the death knell for those sets of old. Today’s high street chemistry offerings seem to have been sanitised to the point of tedium, whilst some even proclaim to be chemical-free (shudder).

But there is hope. MEL science have launched a product that brings the chemistry set smack into the 21st Century. And I was pretty excited to get my hands on one.

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MEL chemistry starter pack and 5 experiment boxes.

MEL chemistry is supplied via a subscription model. The starter pack is £29.95, and includes some glassware, safety specs, a solid fuel burner, a google-cardboard VR clone, a tray, a neat macro lens that clips onto a smartphone and other bits and bobs. On the face of things this looks a little steep, but you should also  take into account a really very good IOS/Android app, which shows various 3D representations (when used with the VR goggles) of all the reagents you are likely to encounter later.

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Tin set unboxed

All the experiments are sold separately, at £9.95 per experiment set, with 3 delivered each month. The idea being that you each month you receive a new kit. This seems really very reasonable to me, and is just the sort of model that maintains the excitement. Fresh chemistry coming through the door each month should keep up the interest.

Each experiment was accompanied by a very good instruction card and a detailed online page. The webpage goes into far more depth that you would expect for the target 12+ age group. But its all clear and well written. A very minor criticism is the commentary to the videos, sometimes the heavy (Russian?) accent makes things a little difficult to follow.

We (a small Lorch and I), cracked open the ‘Tin set’ and fired up the accompanying video. Everything is very well packaged with a lot of thought going into how kids should dispense solutions  safely. My lab assistant, for this experiment, has quite a reputation for knocking fluids flying, but in this case, and despite a couple of up ended bottles, nothing was spilt.

So over to the real action. The ‘Tin set’ contains two experiments. First, the tin hedgehog, which simply involves dropping a zinc pellet into a solution of tin (II) chloride. Tin crystals quickly form on the pellet, these are quite small and would be difficult to see without the help of the clip-on macro lens. So with the expanding crystals captured live on my phone’s screen  my co-experimenter was quite impressed.

Then we moved on to the tin dendrites. Again the method was easy for my pre-teen helper to follow. And this time, as the beautiful branches of tin struck out across the petri dish there was some genuine amazement in the room.

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Tin hedgehog, as seen via the kit’s macro lens.

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Tin dendrites

     

So far so very impressed. By linking all the experiments with excellent online and smart resources they should really engage the budding chemist and ensure they learn a heck of a lot more than just how to gas themselves. In short they are fun, safe and bang up to date.

I’ve got previews of another 4 experiments to try and will let you know what I think. If they are up to the same standard I’ll be signing up for the other 34.

EDIT: Note, a previous version stated that the sets cost £9.95 per month. This should have read £9.95 per experiment set. The text has been altered to correct this.

By October 27, 2015 2 comments chemical education

Spread the word about chemistry & don’t fret the chemophobia

   

At times chemists can feel rather maligned. But according to the RSC’s study of the UK public’s perceptions of chemistry we shouldn’t be quite so worried about what people think of us.  We do however need to get out there and let people know what we do.

The other sciences seem to get pride of place in the medias science pages and TV shows. Whilst chemistry has no celebrity singing it’s praises, not a single chemist made it into Science Magazines  50 science stars on Twitter, and chemistry news just doesn’t get the same coverage as the big physics projects (even when the physics project was all about landing a chemistry lab on a comet).

As a profession we think we do some pretty important work. After all every modern pharmaceutical, synthetic material, cleaning product, fuel, battery, ink and electronic device contains our handy work. Which is why we get upset when an advertising campaign emblazons the dreaded words “Chemical-free’ across some product or another.  Or the likes of The Food Babe, decides to start an uniformed campaign against an additive based on little more than the fact she can’t pronounce it.

Sometimes we (I) throw our toys about the pram and start ranting about how everything is made of chemicals and how chemophobia is rife. God knows bloggers have written enough posts about it, including a comical ‘paper’ in Nature Chemistry. However, we should settle down, because the Royal Society of Chemistry has commissioned a comprehensive study of UK public’s perceptions of chemistry, chemists and chemicals. And it seems many of those (mine included) irate blog posts got it wrong.

I’ve been able cogitate about what it all means as I got an an advanced copy of the findings and have had time to discuss them with the RSC. So here’s my potted summary and a few conclusions.

Perceptions of perceptions of chemistry: First off the RSC asked it’s members about how they thought the public perceived chemistry. And sure enough most expected a negative attitude. The fear of chemophobia amongst chemists was certainly commonplace. But when the RSC turned to the public chemophobia didn’t materialise in anywhere near the expected levels. Instead …

Perceptions of chemicals:Chemophobia is not commonplace. Less than 20% of the public thought that all chemicals are dangerous or harmful. Most people really didn’t have strong feelings about chemicals one way or another. And 60% knew that everything is made of chemicals. This is despite the use of ‘chemical’ to mean something dangerous being very common.

Perceptions of chemistry: Here 59% believe the benefits of chemistry are greater than any harmful effects (as compared to 55% for science). And once again most people were pretty neutral about chemistry as a subject.

Perceptions of chemists: It turns out people just don’t know what we do. This is made all the worse, in the UK, by retail pharmacists being universally known as chemists.

Don’t fret the chemophobia

There’s an important message here about what’s going on when ‘chemical’ is used pejoratively. For most people ‘chemical’ has a double meaning. So we shouldn’t get upset when ‘chemical’ is used as a short hand for toxin or poison. I know I’ve written plenty that’s contrary to this, but the RSC’s study has really changed my thinking. People are quite capable of holding two meanings of ‘chemical’ in their minds and we should just try and ignore the use of the one that soooooo grates. In fact it may even be counter productive to try and combat our perceived misuse of ‘chemicals’. As the RSC study puts it…

“People’s views of chemicals do not impact their view of chemistry or chemists. But if chemists talk about chemicals all the time, especially in trying to combat inaccuracies in the views of others – we risk activating existing fears.”

Chemists aren’t being tarnished with the chemicals = danger association. But by continually banging on about how chemicals are in everything we run the risk of being alienating our audience. Luke Gammon put’s it very well.

Don’t denigrate, belittle or “punch-down” – remember to laugh with, not at – lest we lose the battle for the public perception of “chemicals”.

So here’s me hanging up my #chemophobia hash-tag. And conceding that Luke, Renee and Chemtacular probably had the right idea (check our their blogversation)

There’s a void we need to fill

However the overwhelming message is that there is a void in the public’s perceptions of what it is we do. And it’s a gap that we should all do our best to fill. That means that we all need to do our bit, whether on social media, in blogs or even at parties. We can all tell people about what we do. There’s a great appetite for science out there, we shouldn’t assume that people aren’t interested in what chemists get up too and we certainly shouldn’t fear a negative reaction from them.

To go along with the study the RSC have also published a communications toolkit which summaries their main findings and contains some tips for how to get the wonders of chemistry across. Please go and take a look and then spread the word.

And join in the discussion on twitter with the hash-tag #chemperceptions.