Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center Debuts Dynamic Science Teaching Tool

PITTSBURGH, April 29, 2009 - High school and undergraduate students now have a ringside seat to watch atoms and molecules in super-slow motion and vivid color, as they jostle and bump each other within the cozy environs of a human cell or a beaker on a lab bench. In "Big Numbers in Small Spaces: Simulating Atoms, Molecules and Brownian Motion," students are invited to consider how many molecules are in a single drop of water, or a single cell, and then to fly in and find out.

"Big Numbers" is the newest and most elegantly produced instructional movie from CMIST (see mist, Computational Modules in Science Teaching), an educational outreach program of the National Resource for Biomedical Supercomputing (NRBSC) at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC). 

Joel Stiles, NRBSC director and associate professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, will introduce the new ten-and-a-half-minute CMIST movie at the National Science Bowl Finals Competition in Washington, DC on May 2. "To address the challenge of science learning for the video-gaming, tech-savvy, multi-tasking students of today," says Stiles, "CMIST offers highly realistic and visually appealing content in easily usable form."

In "Big Numbers," students "see" carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms in water and glucose molecules. They watch red-blood cells passing through a vessel while discovering that each of these cells can hold about three-trillion water molecules. They see supercomputer simulations of realistic atomic sizes, covalent bonds, hydrogen bonds, and other details of molecular structure and motion (molecular dynamics), before time and space leap ahead to illustrate Brownian movements of molecules on cellular and human scales.

To view "Big Numbers" go here: http://www.nrbsc.org/cmist

Unlike many other animated teaching tools, CMIST movies are produced with highly realistic modeling and simulation software, such as MCell and DReAMM, programs co-authored by Stiles and used for realistic cell modeling in many research laboratories around the world. CMIST materials extrapolate from and bring life to classic textbook pictures and concepts. They seamlessly integrate content from biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computational science, and are distributed online and as ready-to-use DVDs.

Led by Stiles, the CMIST production team is a unique assemblage of talents, including simulation and visualization specialist Jacob Czech, e-learning and multimedia designer Jenda Domaracki, education outreach specialist Pallavi Ishwad (a former high-school biology teacher and Ph.D. scientist), and student composer Jason Mlynek from the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University. "Producing high-quality animations from realistic simulations is a huge team effort," says Stiles, "much like producing a short Hollywood film." On July 9, the CMIST team will introduce "Big Numbers" to regional high-school science teachers at a workshop hosted by the NRBSC.

CMIST's pilot module, "Molecular Transport in Cells,"was introduced in 2008 and illustrates important principles of osmosis and diffusion with 3D examples. It has been presented to over 500 multi-disciplinary educators at the state and national level and has been enthusiastically received and incorporated in classroom use in the Pittsburgh area.

CMIST is jointly supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation’s TeraGrid program, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.


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