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The Trouble with Molecules (Sharing Molecules, part 2)

Some Spring musings from our editor, Dr Natalie Fey.

In my previous catch-up blog post, I started telling you about a booklet that we’ve developed, focussed on encouraging women to do hands-on chemistry experiments with kids in their social circle. Through workshops with kids of various ages, we have been able to establish that this would appeal to our target audience, but getting women involved remained important as well.

With a view to distributing this booklet to women, and to give them the confidence to share these activities, I wanted to start some cascades. These are based on the idea that I and other chemists could do a workshop with a group of women, showing them the activities and explaining the background, and they would then not just try things out at home, but also show other women. So in early December 2017, I took the long drive from Bristol to West Kent to meet with my contacts there and we spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon trying out the different experiments. The ladies present, many of them Science Representatives for their WI, were interested, engaged and not scared of the practical experiments, and they were happily discussing how to show these activities to their peers.

With one exception. The booklet includes an activity that involves building molecular structures from things you can find at home (fruit, veg, beads, sticks, straws, wires, marshmallows). It was our cheap approach to the Make-It-Molecular activity developed by a team around one of my former lecturers at Keele University, which I have frequently borrowed from the ChemLabS outreach kit. It relies on a commercial modelling kit, Molymod, which is expensive, whereas all kinds of things (see above) can be used to build molecular structures. So I’d rocked up with my usual supply of potatoes, grapes, blueberries and radishes, as well as some tooth picks, and we had build some molecules of methanol, before graduating to modelling clay/straws and pompoms/pipe cleaners for more complicated structures, such as vanillin, benzaldehyde and geraniol. I also showed off my crochet molecular structures.

When we started to discuss how this activity could be used with a group of WI ladies, my willing volunteers, who had taken all kinds of hands-on, sometimes messy, experiments in their stride, expressed a lot of doubt about whether they would be able to give any explanation of molecular structures and why atoms arrange themselves in certain ways at all, never mind lead their peers in workshops. With time running out, I left them with a promise to develop more detailed information sheets to accompany this particular activity.

I puzzeled over this for a while and, short of time myself, eventually found a few pennies to employ a summer student (Lucy Bird, at the time a 2nd year undergraduate student) for a month to work on this and prepare a blog post about molecular structures – you can see the result here. This hasn’t stopped me puzzling, tbh, but at least we have some information written up.

So here is the “Trouble with Molecules” as I see it:

  1. I think my WI ladies are right – this is scarily important and we need to try and get it right. We tend to focus on the flashy (and fun) experiments without having a conversation about the foundations.
  2. With regular exposure, a lot of people seem to stop worrying about this concept and just take the existence and importance of molecules as a fact, without giving this a lot of further thought. This includes school-age kids, who btw love Molymod.
  3. Chemists and other “professional” scientists don’t really agree on the finer details of a definition of molecules, making the conversation difficult. When we have it, we strive for objectivity, so tend to confuse everybody else when we qualify our statements with multiple exceptions.
  4. That notwithstanding, molecules (and atoms) are a really important gateway concept for chemistry and related molecular sciences, because that is what most of our work is about. Also, it is rather amazing that we are able to investigate and manipulate molecular structure.
  5. Because a lot of people have somehow become used to the concept of molecular structure, we forget how odd this must sound to somebody who’s not been in formal education for a long time. And we don’t really help ourselves by delving into the sophisticated measurements done to prove molecular structures, or by launching into a historical perspective.

So where does that leave us? I’m still mulling this over, and I’ll keep trying out different explanations. We can get people interested in chemistry by a number of ways, but at some stage we need to have a talk about what actually is going on at the molecular level. And I’m no longer convinced that our students are going to be confident about that conversation, either. However, see 2 above – this blog, and building molecules with people of all ages and backgrounds, have a role to play in prompting deeper thought and discussion. We might just need to be a little bit braver in our Outreach and Public Engagement, and actually ask whether our audiences are happy with these fundamental ideas.

And if anybody has a better idea, please get in touch…

Contributor: Natalie Fey.