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Pros: Combines the fun of physical models with digital inquiry.
Cons: Kids can waste time trying to get the scanner to accurately recognize the atoms in their molecule.
Bottom Line: Empower students to learn about molecules -- built with physical models -- using the camera on a hand-held device.
Happy Atoms is best used as a tool for discovery. Set kids up for success by using the tutorial to build a water molecule. Remind students of the bonding rule, and then release them to find new molecules for themselves. After this play time, bring students in to share their discoveries and challenges. Encourage students to use the various sections of the Molecular Viewer. For example, Name Breakdown lets them look at the prefixes and suffixes to examine a molecule's systematic name. In the tutorial kids find out that water is oxidane, or “oxid” (which means "has oxygen") and “ane” (which means "saturated with hydrogen"); have kids saturate carbon with hydrogen and predict what name that molecule will have ("meth-ane"). Scientist Andee acts as a guide, providing tips along the way. Some of these statements personalize the components, saying, "Electrons like to push away from each other." This is a nice conceptual model, but students may also need to discuss the limitations of this visualization through questions such as, "Can electrons really push each other?"
A lot of class time can be wasted syncing the molecule kit up with a student’s iPhone or iPad. The app will cue kids to place helium, argon, and neon on the mat. Have them put the molecules close together so they can shorten the distance between their device camera and the mat. If they're too far away with the device, the image is blurry and students will get an error message.
In Happy Atoms, a scientist named Andee walks kids through the World of Molecules. Here they will digitally explore the molecules that they built using physical models. But first, students will need to combine plastic atoms with magnetic bonds to make the molecules, with each arm on the plastic atom representing an electron. Kids are encouraged to fill all the magnetic bonding sites to complete their molecule. Once built, kids can scan the molecules with the camera on their iPad or iPhone. Each time a kid builds a new molecule, it gets added to their map. Students can then rotate and spin the molecule they have created on the screen. They can also track their Discovery Map Progress on a ship called the Nucleus. Students work through map locations such as Sulfur Shores or Carbon Nation -- each one has between six and 46 molecules that can be built.
Once scanned, the Molecular Viewer lets kids learn about the molecule they've built. In the Applications section, students can see how molecules are used in the real world. Molecular Geometry specifies the shape of the molecule, while yet another section shows the state of matter of the molecule during normal conditions.
Traditional molecular modeling kits, from companies such as Lab Aids, cost around $25. While Happy Atoms has a higher price tag, it brings some significant improvements. In traditional modeling sets, kids follow directions to build a specific model. Happy Atoms allows students to design their own molecules within a given set of parameters, then scan with the app to see what they made. Additionally, most traditional molecular modeling kits only show the open bonding sites. Happy Atoms shows both open and paired bonding sites, allowing for some of the unique “exception” molecules to be built.
Unfortunately, the Happy Atoms app is really finicky. Sometimes students have to re-photograph over and over to get it to recognize the correct atoms. Teachers will have to decide if the time spent fiddling with the app is worth the new opportunities for inquiry provided by Happy Atoms.