Are Mechanisms Just for Chemistry Majors?

Like many chemists, I am not much help to the biology, biomedical, and medical students that come to my office with queries ranging from anatomy to physiology. Though a prerequisite for my degree, biology was never a true passion of mine. Likewise, many biology majors despise chemistry. In fact, a number of the biology majors in my organic chemistry courses dislike chemistry so much that they fear it. Of those students, most find organic chemistry, in particular, to be their least favorite course in college.

For many chemistry faculty, this is not surprising. Regular discussions arise concerning the difficulty and specificity of organic chemistry, many believing it to be too difficult for non-chemistry majors. However, these discussions unfairly suggest that biology majors exhibit a lesser capacity for mastering organic chemistry compared with their chemistry-major peers. Regardless of the generalizations made, organic chemistry is, indeed, specific, and the large amount of material can be daunting to all students, of all disciplines. Specificity increases further when the focus of the textbook takes a more mechanistically-centered approach. Though many of my peers were concerned about organizing the first and second semester organic chemistry courses by reaction mechanism, I was optimistic that my students would benefit from Karty’s text.

From a chemist’s perspective, introducing more mechanisms in undergraduate organic chemistry is advantageous to those students looking to begin a career in the field. Some argue that the stronger focus on mechanisms will hurt the non-chemistry majors’ chances of success. However, I have discovered that most of my students, the non-chemistry majors included, are unsatisfied with oversimplification of the subject matter or eliminating details for their “benefit.” Since using Karty’s text for my lectures, I have noticed a general increase in interest toward the mechanism, even to the point that some of my students refused to accept my simple “anti-Markovnikov product” rule without the complete alkene-hydroboration mechanism. And, interestingly, half of these ever-eager students were biology majors.

I was so pleasantly surprised by the apparent interest, and the increasing success of my biology majors after using Karty for the first time, that I singled-out their data for this article. Focusing specifically on biology majors, these data do not include specific degrees like biochemistry, biomed., etc. Thirty-four of my 140 first-semester organic chemistry students were biology majors. They represented five of my fourteen highest scores, 0% of the “withdrawing” students, and held a “Drop, Fail, Withdraw” (DFW) score 5% below the DFW for the class. Most of these students regularly attended class (some never missing a day), actively participated in recitation, and took advantage of my office hours on a regular basis.

Though these data make up one semester and only a handful of students, I have greater confidence in Karty’s book and its mechanistic organization. The worries I had for my non-chemistry major students were practically non-existent by the time we finished the first exam. It was obvious from exam scores, office hours, and recitation—from those that took advantage of the latter opportunities—that students were handing the material well. The scores obtained from my biology majors and the participation of those students, in and out of class, suggest that non-chemistry majors are not at a disadvantage.

Karty’s book provides organization and reference materials that make sense to the student. Additionally, end-of-chapter problems provide a variety of organic chemistry examples to better prepare them for our comprehensive ACS final examination. Organic chemistry is not just for chemists. Those students that put in the time to learn the core concepts will be successful. And a mechanistic organization allows for a more streamlined “story” from lecture-to-lecture, preventing any watering-down of material for the non-chemistry majors.

-Cliff Coss, Northern Arizona University

Click here to learn more about Prof. Coss

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