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Chemistry 101: Molecular Modeling: Making the Intangible Tangible

Chemistry 101: Molecular Modeling: Making the Intangible Tangible

After over a year of instability in our schools—as we shuffled from in-person to virtual to hybrid to in-person instruction—students, teachers, and parents are exhausted, longing for the simplicity of routine, of a dependable schedule. And as we re-engage with in-school instruction, teachers are learning exactly what the time away has meant for their students as they struggle to reconnect with them and provide them meaningful, relevant content and lessons.

In the COVID-era science classroom, although teachers may face an abundance of equipment, labware, and surfaces that require consistent cleaning and disinfecting, they may find comfort in being able to regularly offer students hands-on activities. One such activity, working with molecular models, is an easy and effective way to introduce students to the relationship between the structure and function of molecules that make up the most basic bits of chemistry and biology.

In this post, we’re going to look at the past (how the most easily recognizable ball-and-stick molecular models came to be), the present (how and why to incorporate them into your teaching at school or at home), and how molecular modelling has been able to help us toward a better future.

How’d We Get to Balls and Sticks?

Humans have always been curious about how the smallest particles of matter come together to create the universe. Johannes Kepler first speculated on theories of molecular structure, brought about by observations of the symmetry of snowflakes in the 1600s.

Kepler’s foray into early crystallography led the way for other scientists to explore the relationship between matter and structure. In 1865, German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann was the first to make ball-and-stick molecular models based on the ease of packing repeating units (in this case, atoms) in a single connected structure. He used such models in his lectures at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Today’s molecular ball-and-stick models represent a chemical substance through the display of both the three-dimensional position of the atoms and the bonds between them. The atoms are typically represented by spheres connected by rods which represent the bonds.

Molecular Models in the Classroom

Molecular modeling sets are designed to help students visualize the three-dimensional structures of molecules and promote understanding of related topics such as stereochemistry, chemical formulae, and molecular orbitals. Real molecules exist in three dimensions, and students can get a better understanding of how they work in the physical world when they can hold them in their hands and manipulate them.

Reading textbooks, particularly on complex chemical relationships, isn’t enough. Research shows that when students work with their hands, such as during the construction of models, they are able to perform better on academic tests. Constructing models activates physical engagement, which reinforces learning and long-term recall. Through the building of models of molecules, students develop abstraction capacity, spatial vision, and knowledge of the formation of molecules from individual atoms. A molecular model set allows students to better understand the structure of both organic and inorganic molecules.

When the Virtual Helps Us Learn about the Physical

Modern molecular modeling covers a wide variety of theoretical and computational methods used to represent the structure of molecules, ions and/or particles and contributes to modern science by illuminating precise descriptions and predictions of biological phenomena and chemical reactions. Currently, the most commonly explored methods in molecular modelling are used in the fields of computational chemistry, drug design, computational biology and materials science, in which computers allow us to study the molecular systems of large biological molecules and material construction.

Science is continually evolving, working to describe and predict as it does so. As animals with an innate desire to understand themselves and their word, we often find ourselves enamored with both the grand scale of the universe and the minute building blocks of all matter. As for the latter of these explorations, working with molecular models offers students as well as curious humans in any setting the opportunity to explore how the tiniest elements of matter fit together to create everything in front of them.

Get Your Hands on Some Atoms

Interested in building some of Earth’s basic compounds in your classroom or home? Check our molecular model kits here at hBAR. Within our array of chemistry charts and modelling kits, we offer a giant molecular model set designed so that the entire classroom can see demonstrations and this model set, which covers most basic inorganic and organic chemistry topics and is extremely affordable. 

Check out these interesting reads on how we use the study of tiny bits to learn about our world:

Limits of Perfection

Molecular Modeling and Physics: A Tale of Two Disciplines

An Overview of Molecular Modeling for Drug Discovery with Specific Illustrative Examples of Applications

Chemistry X-Ray Crystallography: Revealing Our Molecular World

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