Molecularium: Molecule Building Game

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Instructor Guide/Manual , Interactive Simulation
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Learners with little or no prior knowledge of atomic or molecular structure can follow simple directions to digitally “build” a wide variety of molecules out of three atoms: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. This educational game received a 2013 “Best of the Web” award from the Center for Digital Education.  Click “Nanolab” to enter the game environment on the web page.  The resource could be ideal for 6th graders, for middle school students who have disabilities, and/or for students struggling with the content. Students are expected to have 3 key takeaways from this activity:

  • A huge variety of molecules can be built from three important elements: carbon, hydrogen, and atom.

  • Patterns can be observed in simple molecules and also in extended molecular structures.

  • Molecules that support life, such as sugars, are much more complex than simpler molecules, such as carbon dioxide or water.

For supplementary teacher support, see the Molecularium Project’s "Educators Resource Guide", with more than 15 lessons related to molecular literacy.  Here is a link to the Guide:


Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 6
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-PS1-1 Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on developing models of molecules that vary in complexity. Examples of simple molecules could include ammonia and methanol. Examples of extended structures could include sodium chloride or diamonds. Examples of molecular-level models could include drawings, 3D ball and stick structures, or computer representations showing different molecules with different types of atoms.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include valence electrons and bonding energy, discussing the ionic nature of subunits of complex structures, or a complete description of all individual atoms in a complex molecule or extended structure is not required.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
To fully meet the Performance Expectation, teachers need to introduce a little vocabulary:  diatomic molecule, hydrocarbon, subscript, and simple sugars (glucose and fructose). See the Educators Guide here: Go to Page 25 for a supplementary lesson titled “Counting with Chemistry”.  Further support will also be needed to “describe” atomic composition, as required in the specific language of the PE. See Page 22 of the Instructors Guide, “Making Molecules”.  In this supplemental lesson, students create physical models of simple molecules and obtain information they will use to describe the shapes/patterns.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
As a stand-alone activity, this resource does not ask students to describe phenomena. However, Page 13 of the Instructors Guide provides a nice lesson titled “Character of the Elements” that asks students to obtain information about properties of the three elements they will encounter in the Molecule Building Game:  carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. To further extend the activity, ask students to draw several of their digitally created molecules on paper and note patterns they see emerging on each of the 3 levels of the game. Example: Level 1 -- Why do we call these “simple molecules”?  Level 2 -- What are hydrocarbons and what patterns can we detect by playing the game?  Level 3 -- Compare the hydrocarbons with the sugar molecules in the third level. Which is more complex? (Sugar molecules)  How are the molecules in Level 2 and 3 similar? (They’re all composed of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen).

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This resource will likely be too simple for students who have already covered the structure of the atom, atomic orbitals, and/or factors affecting chemical bonding. It will be ideal for younger middle school students, for learners with disabilities, or for English Language Learners. The entire game requires very little reading, with verbal explanations given of each molecule after it’s built.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In addition to the “Build” game itself, be sure students click on the “Zoom” icon (on the home page) to get a further sense of the tiny size of molecular-scale objects.  In addition, Page 6 of the Instructors Guide has a fun activity to help students conceive of just how small an atom is.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: As a stand-alone object, the Molecule Building Game explicitly meets the DCI, but not the PE because it doesn’t ask students to use their modeling efforts to “describe” phenomena. However, when used with the Instructors Guide (linked above), the game is well supplemented with short activities that meet the content standards (see in particular p. 22 of the Guide, “Making Molecules”). The Crosscutting Concept dealing with molecular scale is explicitly addressed quite well in the simulation (click the “Zoom” item on the menu) and in the Instructor Guide (page 6). The Science & Engineering Practice is the least well-integrated of the three Dimensions and will require teacher support as noted above.

  • Instructional Supports: The Instructor Guide (linked above) provides more than 15 related lessons and activities to supplement the Molecule Building game.  It covers a multitude of sub-topics including scale, scientific notation, atomic structure, Periodic Table, properties of elements, nomenclature of chemistry, characteristics of the featured atoms (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen), physical modeling to introduce electron levels, tables/charts for diagramming molecules, experiments, real-life connections (the burning of hydrocarbons), and more. The game itself is a small part of the overall project. The Molecule Building Game could be used as-is for students with disabilities.  It can also be a good resource for English Language Learners or struggling readers, though the Guide doesn’t specify how to do this. The Bonus round of the Game could work nicely as an extension activity -- it introduces Buckyballs, while the Educator Guide provides a creative supplemental lesson on Page 47 titled “Buckyballs and Nanotubes”.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The Instructor’s Guide provides multiple short quizzes with answer keys, student worksheets, tables, charts, and a classroom game to help students remember an element’s place on the Periodic Table. All assessments are readily accessible and printable.  The Guide does not include a rubric.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The game can't be completed without student interaction. When students correctly build a molecule, the game will progress to the next task. The resource is also available as an app on Apple or Google Play.