3D-ection: Molecular Shape Recognition

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In this activity (page 12), learners explore how molecules self-assemble and how molecules must fit together, like a lock and key, in order to identify each other and initiate a new function as a combined unit. Learners use play-dough and keys to design their own molecular models that demonstrate how shapes of molecules are important to self-assembly. Note: The write-up for this activity starts on the bottom of page 12. [Activity is publicly available through a web crawler capture on Archive.org.]

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
45 to 60 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:
$1 - $5 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 11 - 14

Resource Types:
Activity, Lesson/Lesson Plan, Model


Materials List (per group of students)

  • Play-dough (or Sculpey)
  • Rolling pins
  • Assortment of different types of keys
  • One small, opaque bag containing a small item with unique and distinctive shape


  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
      • Nanotechnology
  • Life Sciences
    • Cells
      • Cell Structure and Function
    • Human Body
  • Physical Sciences
    • Chemistry
      • Chemical Bonding
    • Structure and Properties of Matter
      • Atomic Structure


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


Access Rights:

  • Free access



  • All rights reserved, Arizona Science Center, 2012

Funding Source:

  • Science Education Partnership Award, National Institutes of Health