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“Snatoms” Want to Change the Way Kids Learn Chemistry

“Snatoms” Want to Change the Way Kids Learn Chemistry

Visualize a high school science classroom. What do you see? Maybe some tables, Bunsen burners, and posters of the periodic table on the walls. But there are definitely those ball and stick models of molecules. They are meant to teach kids about how atoms bond, however, like many models and demonstrations, the ball-and-stick set-up isn’t as accurate as it could be.

That’s where “Snatoms” come in. Thought up by physicist, science communicator, and YouTube sensation Derek Muller, Snatoms are mostly spherical, magnetic models of atoms able to stick together without the traditional sticks. The new models have blown past Muller’s Kickstarter goals by three times at the time of this writing, but you can still back the project to get your own Snatom kit.

“Ball and stick models can be useful for showing molecular structure, but they are not exactly fun to play with,” Muller told me in an email. “I was playing with some small spherical magnets three years ago when I got the idea to embed them in atoms so everything sticks together exactly the way it does in nature. I think this makes for a much more enjoyable and accurate model.”

The problem with the ball-and-stick model is that it doesn’t really show what happens in nature, and implies processes that don’t occur. First of all, the sticks represent a rigid connection that isn’t there. Atoms’ electrons overlap when bonding, rather than establish some kind of static connection at a distance. And the ball-and-stick models don’t allow for easy atom rotation or noticeable attraction.

Snatom_FEAT

“The main thing is the old ball-and-stick is not much fun to play with. Single bonds don’t rotate easily,” Muller says. “Atoms don’t attract. It takes a long time to make and break a bond. Snatoms does all this way better.”

The best part about Snatoms? Kids can actually feel the way atoms are attracted to each other. “The most common misconception is that they store energy, when they really don’t,” Muller explained. “You could think of a bond as two atoms can’t get away from each other because of the energy they’ve lost.” So when you quickly snap two snatoms together and try to pull them apart, you are really feeling the energy you have to put into a bond to break it. It’s conceptually accurate, and more accessible.

Snatom_GIF

“I can imagine kids playing with Snatoms without knowing what they represent, school students and teachers using them to make chemistry concrete and hands on. And I can imagine science enthusiasts having a kit around the home or office, displaying an interesting molecule or relieving stress playing with the kit and listening to that satisfying snap.”

If you want your own Snatom kit, Muller’s Kickstarter will be running through December 23 of this year, and should be shipping products in June of 2016.

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