Building on their Knowledge: From Atoms to Multi-Step Synthesis to Curing Sick Puppies

Karty’s mechanistic approach to organic chemistry provides the content organization to facilitate student success. In a functional group approach students are more likely to apply an incorrect mechanism to solve a synthetic problem. This is because classification by functional group does not provide an organizational level that allows students to classify reactivity. Organization by functional group relies more on remembering molecular structure than on analyzing the structure for key reactive areas. Thus, a mechanistic organization is given a higher mark on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning and leads to a deeper level of student understanding. A mechanistic organization also conditions students to immediately apply previously mastered concepts in order to solve more complex problems. Homing in on functional group rather than rationalizing reactivity greatly diminishes the variety of problems a student can solve.

Karty’s approach also facilitates the following hierarchical classification of learning organic chemistry:

This allows me to give students a constant vision of where they came from and where they are going, and throughout the term I periodically review this outline with my students. It allows me to address the question of why they are learning what they are learning and helps me motivate them to embrace the material. While students cannot comprehend the specifics of multistep synthesis during the first months of organic chemistry, they can understand the value of synthetic chemistry in terms of the types of molecules produced by it.

I supplement this idea—that they are building on their knowledge—by frequently returning to a hypothetical situation: a drug is needed to cure a sick puppy. To cure the puppy we need to learn how to complete multiple synthetic transformations using simpler starting materials. In order to do this we first need to understand how single molecules react with each other. To do this we need to know the fundamental mechanistic steps. As we do not have all of the knowledge required to make the puppy better until the end of the term, I can use our progress as a form of encouragement. I say things like, “We cannot cure the puppy yet but we are closer because we understand how molecules are composed and how they react with each other.” While students understand that we are not actually going to cure a puppy, Karty’s layout and approach motivates them and allows them to organize their knowledge. It logically builds the organic tool box from Lewis structures to retrosynthetic analysis. It also allows a constant retrospective review on fundamental topics from the first seven introductory chapters. This constant review makes students experts at what they need to understand the most.

Once students master the reactions rooted in the ten elementary steps, they know over 75% of all the chemistry needed to make most molecules. More importantly they are able to understand the reactivity of molecules in almost any reaction, whether it is covered in the text or not. This empowers them and and puts their chemical education in a positive perspective. Suddenly pushing electrons has a higher meaning—it just might cure a sick puppy.

-James Wollack, St. Catherine University
Click here to learn more about Prof. Wollack

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