Cooler Temps, Shorter Days, and the Start of Organic I

I have been teaching organic chemistry for a long time (several years ago I had a wonderful student who pointed out that I taught her dad!). The beginning of first semester of organic chemistry is always clunky and sometimes even painful. How does one make it through the first class without going through every detail that the students faithfully learned in general chemistry, while taking into account that their memory of general chemistry is more wobbly than a fresh batch of Jell-O? What new material can be introduced? Adding to the confusion is the lack of a common language needed to go forward in the course.

The students have a lot of preconceived notions about organic, having heard horror stories from friends, family, and the guy down the hall. For the traditional second year students, general chemistry was a long time ago (last May!) For the students who took AP and college courses in high school, organic is often thought of as a hurdle between them and admittance to med school. Maybe this is why I’m often uneasy at the start of the course—everyone brings something different from their general chemistry experience. They remember about electrons and orbitals but are usually unclear about isotopes and phase changes. There seem to be a lot of students who are pretty sure that sugar breaks down into carbons, hydrogens, and oxygens when dissolved in water.

I have been using the Karty text for a year now. He and the mechanistic organization make organic chemistry a thoughtful process and take the endless memorization out of the course. And Karty does a nice job of revisiting what the students need to remember to start organic. A review of atomic and molecular structure usually gets everyone to about the same place.

Last year, I followed the book chapter by chapter almost verbatim. It went well, but this year I am changing the order I present topics, to match my teaching preferences a little better. Jumping around can be frightening to students who have always followed the order of a textbook. But because the chapters in this book are self-contained, it works.

How did I handle class one this year? First, I decided to focus more on functional groups than I have in the past. About halfway through the review of atomic structure (after reviewing bond lengths, Lewis dot structures, and looking at covalent and ionic bonds), we jumped from condensed structures and line drawings into Nomenclature 4 (Naming Compounds with Common Functional Groups). Getting to know the parts we will be working with gave us a great frame of reference and control of the beast that is organic.

Then we flipped back to Chapter 1 to look at Table 1-6 (below), back again to Nomenclature 4 to look at Table N4-1 (also below), and saw how these functional groups are recognized and named.

Table 1-6

Table N4-1

By the end of the hour, we saw and said and looked at a lot of functional groups! It was a good balance of review and new materials, wasn’t painful, and really seemed to give the students a boost of encouragement. And just to be a rebel, I introduced the anhydride in the very last box in Table 1-6 (left blank in the text) and had the students draw it in so they really “owned” the compound. Although they have now been introduced to eighteen new structures and functional groups, I told them that the list is just the start of organic chemistry. After class one, they seem to have the confidence to take it on.

-Rita Majerle, Hamline University

Click here to learn more about Prof. Majerle

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