Each generation builds upon the experience and knowledge of the last—with advancements made possible only by what has come before us. We sometimes call it “standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is especially true in the fast-changing world of chemical research and discovery. Three of Schrödinger’s educational experts explain the impact of connecting with younger generations through highly advanced software, curiosity, and a lot of creativity.
Taking responsibility for the future
Jennifer Chambers, director of education at Schrödinger, spends much of her time advising research professionals on the use of cutting-edge molecular modeling software. Serious work, to be sure. But there is one slightly less serious corner of Chambers’ world that is centered on outreach to young students in STEM. “It can be exciting to watch their faces light up when they learn something new,” Chambers said. “We’re sparking curiosity and opening minds to the possibilities of molecular modeling.”
Michael Rauch, senior scientist II at Schrödinger, has a similar role. “We work with the experts,” Rauch said, “and we also get to inspire the next generation of experts.” Schrödinger maintains a repository of training modules, online courses, and creative exercises used to train professionals and students alike. All of these fascinating resources came from years of collaboration between Schrödinger scientists. By sharing these tools early, we can help feed students’ curiosity so they see the potential of chemistry, the excitement of discovery, and the unlimited possibilities in exploring chemical space.
“If all of science is built by standing on the shoulders of giants, our STEM outreach merely reminds us that, sometimes, the shoulders are a lot smaller than expected.”
Katherine “Kat” Bay, senior scientist I at Schrödinger, has some STEM outreach stories that are particularly memorable. “Kids will surprise you,” she said. “I sometimes ask students to tell me the smallest thing they can think of. It usually leads into talking about things like atoms. But it’s fun to see how kids let their imaginations go everywhere. One kid responded to my ‘smallest thing’ question with, ‘a quark!’ This little guy was just in kindergarten. Kids are very intuitive and, as adults, we often don’t often give them enough credit. Just like us, they want to explore more about the world.”
Bay enjoys providing science-focused experiences for younger students. “They want to know what scientists and adults are learning about,” she said, “but they don’t often have the opportunity. That’s what is really exciting about our software. It’s so user-friendly that anyone of any age can follow their curiosity and try it, build their own molecules, and manipulate the molecules themselves.”
One of the most powerful moments in STEM outreach is when you see faces light up with an “a-ha!” moment, Chambers said. “I see this moment a lot when we take something that’s represented in a flat, 2-dimensional way, and then suddenly turn it into a 3D shape. The software makes it rotatable and interactive. Chemistry becomes more real. I think that’s very powerful.”
“Our STEM outreach is a two-way street. Working with kids helps us see our own tools in a new way, and can help us modify the technology interfaces so they are more accessible for scientists with little experience in computational modeling.”
Slime, glitter, and sophisticated software
Science can sometimes feel abstract until you realize it’s all around us. To demonstrate this, Bay led an outreach event for 40 second graders where she taught them about the chemistry of slime—the oozing, gloppy dough that has captured the fascination of kids for decades.
“They love making slime,” said Bay. “In fact, a lot of them already know how to make it, but they don’t know how it looks on a molecular level. So, we showed them with our Materials Science Maestro software. Our molecular dynamic simulation lets them see the water molecules interacting with the glue molecules. It’s not what they’re expecting—they come into it thinking ‘we’re just gonna make slime today.’ But they get a lot more.”
At Schrödinger, our STEM outreach is a two-way street. Working with kids helps us see our own tools in a new way, and can help us modify the technology interfaces so they are more accessible for scientists with little experience in computational modeling.
If all of science is built by standing on the shoulders of giants, our STEM outreach merely reminds us that, sometimes, the shoulders are a lot smaller than expected.