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Joel Stiles

Lights, Camera...Science

Big Numbers

It bobs and dances, inches from your nose, quivering as it hovers in mid-air. You push up the plastic glasses to get a better look at this water molecule, in 3D like you've never experienced.

You're watching Big Numbers in Small Spaces: Simulating Atoms, Molecules and Brownian Motion, a slick new instructional movie produced by Joel Stiles, associate professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon, and his team at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC).

The PSC is a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and Stiles heads its biomedical research unit, the National Resource for Biomedical Supercomputing (NRBSC). Recognizing the need for an educational outreach group, Stiles established the Computational Modules in Science Teaching (CMIST) program, home of Big Numbers.

Led by Stiles, the CMIST team includes simulation and visualization specialist Jacob Czech, eLearning and multimedia designer Jenda Domaracki, education outreach specialist Pallavi Ishwad (formerly a high school biology teacher), and student composer Jason Mlynek from the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon.  Other NRBSC staff and students also help with CMIST efforts.

"We wanted to present fundamental scientific concepts in ways that are visually entertaining but more importantly, get difficult concepts across much more effectively than you've ever been able to do before when forced to stick with a book," Stiles explained.

Big Numbers delivers. Students can see the impossible, watching molecules shimmy and time creep. Unlike other educational videos, Big Numbers was created using highly sophisticated simulation and modeling software, with special care given to visualization. The 3D version, with data rates 25X higher than an ordinary DVD, is a marvel.

"It's very much the same process that you go through if you're making a short Hollywood movie — storyboard, script, etc," Stiles said. "We try hard to keep the animations tightly coupled to highly accurate scientific simulations, and we do visualization very, very well. The quality is just way out there."

Big Numbers is the first piece of a larger instructional module aimed at high school and college level students, and the second module produced by the CMIST team. The modules comprise approximately two days of complete material, including movies, slides, and lesson plans, and are interdisciplinary by design, incorporating concepts from biology, physics, chemistry, math, and computer science.

"We want to transform the way that fundamental science concepts get taught with a truly multidisciplinary approach," Stiles noted. "Teachers want that desperately, but that's not the way they were trained and not the way their curriculum works. We're trying to help."

The focus of Big Numbers reflects Stiles' favorite thing about Carnegie Mellon.

"It's the interdisciplinary environment," he remarked. "Human medicine is going to benefit enormously in years to come from the merger of high performance computing, biology and classical medicine. Carnegie Mellon, with its amazing union of computer science, engineering, and biology expertise, can play a gigantic role."

Related Links: Watch Video  |  NRBSC  |  Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center

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