Turning a Periodic Table into a Digital Chemistry Set

One of the the aspects of high school that I remember with a bit of a smile are my science classes. I have always had a liking to science, if for nothing else but the questions that it would continue to offer. My chemistry class was probably a bit more fun (besides the fact that I was always partnering with a classmate that looked like a nice cross between the short-hair edition of Toni Braxton and Monica) since I got to play with elements that were essentially pretty dangerous. In the past years, I’ve heard from teens that they don’t get as much a chance to play with the dangerous chemicals that we used to play with, and that its generally not as fun since most of their work is analysis of someone else’s experiences rather than logging experiments of their own.

So, in seeing my friend Yerga’s upcoming periodic table application, I got to thinking: "what if that periodic table could be turned into a veritable digital lab?"

Here’s what I am thinking about from an interaction (UX) perspective:

  1. Person opens the application
  2. App opens to periodic table view like in the screenshot
  3. Tapping on an element brings up a screen that shows the basic element information (like in the second screenshot, but redesigned for less text for the labels)
  4. Doing a long-press on an element on the periodic table screen makes the element wiggle (similar to the wiggle iOS icons do when you are in the edit/move icon mode) and there’s a plus sign (+) that appears to the top right of the icon. Clicking on the plus puts a grey-out overlay to the element and you are able to choose another element (or several)
  5. After selecting the elements, you click a green circular check in the top right of the screen (there’s also a circular red ‘X’ next to that to cancel the selection mode)
  6. The next screen you see are just the elements that you selected in a format similar to that where you are balancing equations (for example H + O = ???). The equation though isn’t balanced until you tap on the elements and make sure that you have the right amount of electrons/protons/neutrons/ions. The combined element (after the equal sign) then shows your results, with this changing dynamically as you change the values of the elements on the other side of the equation.
  7. If the resulting experiement is a known element compound, then you get a link to Wikipedia/Britanica for the item. If not, you’ve essentially created a new compound.
  8. You get an option to save your new compound and start again from the periodic table to do another (of course that means there needs to be some kind of history screen logging those compounds created).

In a sense, its one part a reference to a periodic table, but another part a calculator to allow for students to create compounds without the mess of dealing with the actual materials (got to save the children you know). The other aspect here is that with the link to Wikipedia/Britanica, the students will be fewer steps from being able to verify real world applications of the compounds they are dealing with.

In terms of negatives, yes, this basically makes it easier for folks to create or at least see the chemical composition of dangerous chemicals. And its also essentially a calculator partly doing the work of balancing equations instead of letting the person do that themselves. They still have to do it, but instead of "making mistakes" this app in a sense rewards their mistakes by showing them what chemical bonds are possible or not.

I’d loved this kind of app when I was taking chemistry and physics (you know, instead of memorizing the placement of some elements on the table and obscure properties). It might have made those classes much more fun, but definitely less dangerous and messy. Not that we need to get rid of the messy in schools, but if we are, let’s at least give them tools that expand what they can do instead of restricting the lessons to what they’ll quickly grow tired of.

I’ll probably end up sketching some wireframes on this in Tactilis in a bit if this thought continues. I think it would be pretty neat, even if I couldn’t use it right now.