With a click of a computer mouse, scientists can look at a single molecule of the pain-killer ibuprofen. Then, about as easily as taking a child’s building block and turning it around, they can click and view the same molecule from another angle. And another.

It is called computerized modeling, and it is the way scientists work these days. Trouble is, that isn’t the way many students learn.

The scientists at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications are trying to change that. And the U.S. Department of Education is kicking in $2.6 million to help them.

“Obviously, they have tremendous expertise in data representation,” said Bill Conrad, associate superintendent for learning technologies at the Illinois State Board of Education, which will share in the three-year federal grant with the supercomputing center.

The money will not be spent to teach students, but to teach the teachers. Called EdGrid, the program will train colleges how to instruct new teachers to teach math and science by using graphical simulations done with web-based software.

One of those programs, ChemViz, was developed at the University of Illinois. It allows scientists to view and manipulate single molecules on a computer screen in a variety of ways.

The EdGrid program is designed to have a national impact by changing the way colleges and other training programs prepare new teachers. And not just in math and science, but in other areas as well, such as reading, said Raul Zaritsky of the supercomputing center.

With an estimated 2.5 million new teachers expected to be hired by 2008, the time is right for such a change. “This is a unique window of opportunity,” said Lisa Bievenue of the supercomputing center.

Zaritsky said students can only benefit from the use of computer modeling and visualization.

The process also offers advantages over the traditional ways of teaching science. “A computer model allows you to look at more sophisticated concepts,” said Bievenue. “It’s also making possible things that aren’t possible in the classroom.” For example, computer simulations can be run over and over again, she said.

And Zaritsky said a visual display is particularly helpful for students who have difficulty grasping concepts represented only in words or equations.

Another part of the program will develop software that will allow teachers, parents, and students to convert data such as test scores into visual models that can be manipulated on their computers, he said.

National Center for Supercomputing Applications

Illinois State Board of Education