Friday, November 14, 2014

Molecules is App-tacular!

On my apps page, I refer to the The Elements app as the only periodic table app you will ever need.  Just like its parent, the Theodore Gray coffee table book by the same name, it is packed with information, has beautiful interactive images, and rich text that is at once accessible but never talks down to the user.  When I saw its sister app, Molecules, in the app store this week, I knew I had to take a look. 

As a sequel to The Elements, Molecules raises the bar.  Part interactive textbook, part toy chest, part model kit, this app draws the user in with its fantastic photographs and interesting details about the chemistry of everyday things.  Touch the photographs and reveal a video or spin the image around to get a look at the back.  Touch one of the many interactive molecules and you can manipulate it or view it as a space-filling model or 2-D image.  While examining a molecule, touch "more info" for alternate names, chemical formula, molecular weight, and links to pages about the elements in The Elements app.  Take a look at the preview on YouTube:

The app and the book have many things in common, but the book includes the amazing interactive elements, literally elements, that make it even better than the book.  A bonus chapter called Wiggling Molecules explains the how much we can learn by fiddling with the models.  Drag the molecules around, try to rotate things, zoom in and out.    The author invites us to spin methyl groups like propellers and to explore why some molecules are floppy and some are stiff, claiming "you will gain more understanding of how molecules work in five minutes than an earlier generation of students did in five years."  I believe it.

Theodore Gray's senses of humor and wonder are evident on every page.  Why is bloodlust an expression that chemistry can explain?  What is the most toxic natural substance?  What does he keep his collection of animal pee in?  The answers to those questions and so many more - that I didn't even know I had - are found inside the app and the book.  He politely explains that he did not set out to write a textbook.  Thank heavens!  The fascinating details of biomolecules, pigments, perfumes, pain relievers and more reads better than any science textbook I have ever labored over.

So how could it be used in a classroom?  Kids as young as 9 or so could read and appreciate the curious facts presented on every page.  Middle school and high school students could also use it as a reference because it provides excellent background material on why and how elements bond and other topics like electron orbitals and polarity.  They could also use it as a foundation for inquiry explorations.  What do compounds that are used for similar things -- sugars and artificial sweeteners, for example -- have in common?  College students, too, could benefit from looking at these structures during lectures so they can immediately see examples, simulated with this powerful Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics system, of many organic concepts.

Casual admirers of the periodic table may bristle at the $13.99 price tag of this app, but it is worth every penny.  And it is eligible for Apple's Volume Purchasing Program, making it half-price for bulk purchases of 20 or more copies.  It provides an experience unlike any I have seen in my 24 years of teaching.  If you take a look, I think you will agree.

Full disclosure:  Touch Press provided me with a copy of this app, but my review is entirely based on my amazement with the incredible app!

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