Starting the Semester with My Biology Students in Mind

Like so many other organic courses, at my school approximately two-thirds of organic students are biology majors. Of these, most have some sort of pre-health professional aspiration. Because of this audience alongside my chemistry and biochemistry majors, I come to my organic classroom (as I know many of you do!) with two sets of course goals in mind; there is the amazing world of organic synthesis and mechanistic theory that I want to teach, and there is the looming MCATs, PCATs, and other standardized exams that many of the students have in their futures. The students need a solid foundation in organic chemistry as preparation for biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, and beyond, but I also want them to appreciate organic synthesis as beautiful and elegant and not simply a stepping stone to another course. The challenge for me has always been how to balance how much I should cater to my biology students, finding every possible biochemical hook to interest them and tying everything to a standardized exam question, versus pushing forward a chemical worldview where they learn to appreciate a molecular approach and to think like an organic chemist.

While I have always tried to teach my organic sequence as a mechanism-driven course, last year was the first year that I used the Karty text and adopted a truly mechanistically organized course. Setting up my syllabus last year was a little disconcerting when I realized that I would not have acids and bases, or any other chemical reactions, in my first exam (the first exam included Chapters 1-5). Acid/base chemistry had always been my secret weapon for getting students motivated early on for the first exam—I got to introduce arrow notation and nucleophiles/electrophiles, it was a topic that ‘felt’ like chemistry to the biology students, and I could tie it into the MCATs and PCATs. I loved, in theory, where proton transfer appears in the Karty text (Chapter 6), but I was worried how it would work out in practice. What would I do without a single chemical reaction for the first exam? Could I keep my biology students focused and serious without any ‘chemistry’?

What I would do, as it turns out, is actually take the time to focus on molecular shape and structure in a way that set up the semester better than I expected. Before, I had pushed to get to reactions quickly; most texts hurry to reactions as soon as possible since reactions are, after all, where so much of the exciting stuff happens. But if I really was serious about mechanisms being the center of my course, my students needed to have the molecular tools to be able to predict behavior. Shape, polarity, resonance, and conformations suddenly are more important than ever.

What I really enjoyed about using the text last year was the approach to these topics in the first few chapters, how much care Joel gave to providing complex and thoughtful examples, and how well they set up the rest of the semester for the story he was telling. While these topics were covered  with a fair amount of theory (and even occasionally math!), because they were set up as clearly defined building-blocks for the future, it appealed to my biology students as well. The text (and I) made it clear that, even without a reaction, these chapters deal with chemistry because we are talking about properties of molecules. And the students understood and appreciated this! Because I was able to present these topics as important tools for our future understanding of reactions, and not just cool stuff that chemists enjoy studying, my biology students became excited about topics (like conformations of cyclohexane) that they had never been excited about before.

When setting up my syllabus this semester, I chose to make my first exam cover only Chapters 1-4 (along with Nomenclature 1 and Nomenclature 2). Last year I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough material for the first exam without acid/base chemistry. This year I cut a chapter from the first exam so that I could give a little more focus to resonance and conformations. As it stands now, five days before the first exam, I think it was the correct choice. The students are just starting to become really comfortable with 3-D visualization, but resonance hasn’t been completely overshadowed by Chapter 4 material as it was last year with Chapters 4 and 5.

I realized that, before this new course organization, I had been sometimes hiding behind reactions. When trying to cram in just a bit more material, I would spend too much time on how/what and not enough time on why. The structure of the first part of the Joel’s text forces me to focus on why, and in doing so, has helped alleviate some of the tension I have felt when designing the course for two audiences. All my students, biology and chemistry majors alike, enjoy the idea of learning why and being able to apply their understanding to new situations. For me, using Joel’s text and teaching a mechanistically organized course has been a way to find the right motivations and pace for both of my audiences.

-Michelle Boucher, Utica College

Click here to learn more about Prof. Boucher

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