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Building Molecules in Classrooms

SDSU professor Andrew Cooksy brings chemistry into classrooms with 3-D software.
Chemistry professor Andrew Cooksy works with students at a local high school.
Chemistry professor Andrew Cooksy works with students at a local high school.

San Diego State chemistry professor Andrew Cooksy visited Castle Park Middle School last month, bringing a bit of university science into the classroom as part of a new outreach program to serve San Diego area schools.

His project is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and The Campanile Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the university. It allows SDSU students to join Cooksy in neighborhood chemistry classrooms, where they bring laptop computers preloaded with software that builds individual molecules from an interactive periodic table and allows students to visualize the results in 3-D.  

Inspiring the next great minds

According to Cooksy, this allows students to see how the most basic building blocks in chemistry—the atoms of each element—can join together in different combinations and arrangements to form any molecule in the universe.

He hopes this outreach will encourage many of the students to go into the sciences and on towards careers in fields such as chemistry, materials research, mathematics and imaging.
 
“This is a great opportunity for middle and high schoolers to talk directly with university science students—undergraduates who are often from the same area of town—and to learn from them what it's like to pursue the sciences at the college level.”  

Castle Park Middle School students using laptops
Castle Park Middle School students learn about molecules during a visit from SDSU chemistry professor Andrew Cooksy.

Roots of the program

Cooksy started the program after Colleen Robinson, a motivated chemistry teacher from Helix High School, organized two field trips for all Helix High chemistry students to visit SDSU’s chemistry department in 2006 and 2007.

Unfortunately, it was hard to sustain the program because of transportation issues, but rather than give up, Cooksy got creative.

“It occurred to me that the molecular modeling program was something we could take to the schools much more easily than they could come to us,” he said.

“Second, the NSF encourages scientists to show that our work has an impact in the community, and this project has paved the way for additional funding from the NSF to the Computational Sciences Research Center to support the investigations of several faculty at SDSU.”

Student involvement

Cooksy leads a short lesson, pre-arranged with the classroom teacher to fit into their current curriculum. SDSU undergraduates work with students in the class individually, helping them to design and draw new molecules and to understand what the images represent.

The SDSU students have been trained to use the software as part of their coursework in chemistry, and some have even published results from their research with the software in professional scientific journals.

Cooksy received funding from the NSF and The Campanile Foundation last spring, and made his first classroom visit in September. He currently makes about two visits per month, and expects the program to continue for as long as there is interest from teachers.

Participating schools include:

  • Helix High School
  • Southwest High School
  • Castle Park High School
  • Castle Park Middle School
  • Health Sciences Charter School
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