What’s in a name?
We chose the name Ensemble Interactives because we value learning and teaching aids that can be tangibly, visibly, and interactively operated. In a physics context, the term “ensemble” refers to a collection of particles subject to a specific set of physical (macroscopic) conditions. An ensemble can also refer to a collection of systems of particles, in which each system within the ensemble is subject to the same physical conditions. Our products all involve many small particles and allow students to acquire new insights by considering many different configurations (or “systems”) composed of the same particles under the same conditions.
We believe that hands-on teaching aids based on sound theory help make subtle and advanced scientific principles more accessible and intuitive to students from any background.
What does Ensemble Interactives make?
We make scientific demonstration and lab kits that help teach some complicated topics. Many students struggle with fundamental topics in the core sciences because these topics are abstract or complex. We started by trying to find a new and better way to explain the subtle topic of entropy; other important topics related to our products include free energy, temperature, ensembles, probabilities, phase change, crystallization, and protein denaturation, to name a few. Interestingly, there is something to be learned about each of these topics through our hands-on kits built from simple objects! Our kits model atoms and molecules as hard, symmetric particles. Interactions between atoms or molecules are modeled with magnetic forces, and external forces (such pressure) can be modeled simply by gravity. Of course, real atoms are intricate quantum mechanical objects; but you’ll be amazed at how much can be learned from these simple models!
Why is it important to teach entropy?
“I’m not sure I want to go to college, so this isn’t important for me, right?”
“I’m not getting a degree in chemistry or physics, so do I really need to understand entropy?”
“I teach a class that discusses entropy, but we don’t spend much time on it. Why should I give more time to this topic?”
Regardless of how far you plan to go in your education, there are valuable lessons to be learned from studying entropy. At the same time, a poor understanding based on common misconceptions won’t do you any favors.
Whether or not you’re not seeking an advanced science degree, everyone needs to have a basic understanding of probabilities and statistics. Even in everyday life, one can ask, “Out of all the possible outcomes, why did I observe this one?” or, “Why did I observe this outcome, since it has a low probability?” Regardless of the topic, the answer has to do with likelihood (probability) and number of repetitions (statistics)— both concepts intimately related to entropy. Our products and activities can help foster a more accurate understanding of these valuable concepts.
Many people believe that “disorder is always increasing” is a law of physics; in fact, this is merely a pervasive misconception. This misconception causes much confusion when students consider the fact that visual measures of “order” are increasing around us all the time. (For example, ice and diamonds are both formed spontaneously in nature.) Fortunately, correcting the fundamental misconceptions (or never learning them in the first place!) eliminates the confusion in such seeming contradictions.
If you are pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in science, entropy is a topic you will not be able to avoid. You should therefore have a firm foundation in the concept, even if it’s not a major focus of your education. (Entropy even creeps into computer science as “information entropy,” which is related!) It’s much easier to learn concepts accurately from the beginning than to deconstruct a poor education to make room for reliable learning later!
Why Ensemble Interactives?
I’m Ryan, and I created Ensemble Interactives in 2021 after completing my Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry the previous year. My graduate research involved highly accurate computations of properties of molecular ensembles, including free energy and entropy, among others. Even though I already had a bachelor’s degree in physics, it wasn’t until later in grad school that I began to really understand the concepts surrounding entropy. I still remember the conference I was attending when things started to click for me. I was thrilled to gain a better understanding of several concepts that had been difficult for me, which really weren’t so difficult at all when built on an accurate foundation! At the same time, I was surprised at how few other people seemed to understand entropy accurately— even those with advanced degrees. I recognized one contributor was the fact that there weren’t any macroscopic and intuitive teaching aids for this topic. That’s when I started putting together my own personal “hard particle” kits with dice and buttons to demonstrate some traditionally difficult aspects of entropy. (I also noticed that the grapes and crackers in my lunchbox displayed similar behavior to our professional kits. So, there’s another option for you if you’re on a budget or ever eat lunch.) I want to offer teachers a simple tool that would allow them to teach entropy more accurately without much expanding their curricula. As a lifelong student, I’m proud that Ensemble Interactives is making products I wish I had during my (long) formal education.