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by Kendall Powell
When he was four years old, Marty Burke collected bottle caps. His family lived across the street from a liquor store in rural Carroll County, Maryland, and he fulfilled his early analytical leanings by lining up Moosehead and Pabst caps according to whether or not they were bent.
“I realize now that they were his models for molecules,” says his mother, Mary Ellen Burke, who runs a preschool called Little People's Place.
So that other children in Carroll County don't have to resort to bottle caps, the two Burkes have collaborated to make chemistry larger than life for the toddler set.
Burke, an HHMI early career scientist, designs molecular prosthetics—molecules engineered to replace missing proteins in diseased cells. On a visit to his lab at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his mother saw the ball-and-stick models chemists use to build 3-D molecular structures. They reminded her of the Tinkertoys her preschoolers love. So she pocketed one to teach her students about her son's job as a chemist.
To set her back on the straight and narrow, Burke found a giant molecular model set for sale online and knew he'd landed on the perfect Christmas gift: “The models, with balls the size of softballs, get bigger than the kids really quickly,” he says.
But how much chemistry can a preschooler really learn? Mary Ellen Burke, aka Mrs. Mary, has been operating her school for 34 years on the premise that children are little people who, given the chance, can outlearn any adult. In addition to reading, writing, and math, her curriculum has always included Spanish, sign language, social awareness, and the scientific method—long before they were trendy in child development circles.
Illustration: Peter Arkle