Steal This Idea

Interest boxes are my favorite part of textbooks. Admittedly, I have been only studying and teaching chemistry for about 20 years but every chemistry textbook that I have ever used always had the fun breakout boxes that told a fun and interesting chemistry story related to that chapter’s material. At first glance, they might not seem that important. I would argue the opposite; I think those “interest boxes” as Karty’s organic chemistry textbook calls them, are one of the most important parts of textbooks. Allow me to elaborate.

If you are reading this, you are probably just as biased as me, but chemistry is awesome. AWESOME! If you want to know how something works, you can’t get too far without knowledge of chemistry. It is also a really difficult subject in college and not exactly that easy to teach either. Chemistry is complicated… but of course it is when we are working on our understanding of things on the molecular level. That is our challenge as chemistry professors and instructors; we have this amazing and interesting subject, but to appreciate it properly you really need to have a deep understanding of complex issues first, and then the pieces can start to come together. That is where I would say the interest boxes come in.

I have been teaching organic chemistry for 10 years, and two of the best pieces of advice from a professor that stuck with me from when I was just a graduate student were

first, as a teacher you should always see what other people are doing and steal their ideas, and second, you should always have one fun and interesting thing to talk about every single lecture.

In my lectures, I try my best to always bring in at least one generally interesting topic to talk about that relates to the chemistry we are discussing that day, or to something we have learned previously. It serves to break up the lecture and provides moments where students can relax and think about what they are hearing a little more with less pressure to take notes. It also provides some really important context to what we are doing. Fifty minutes of organic chemistry goes by pretty fast for me, but I can recognize that if I spend all class doing curved arrows and reaction coordinate diagrams you start to lose the bigger picture; not necessarily of the chapter, but of the awesome world of chemistry they are getting access to with this new knowledge. I also give my students a chance to hear about what they want to know by asking them to submit questions. I take 15-20 minutes every Wednesday to talk about one of their questions. I have covered all sorts of things from why do onions make you cry (good for the acids/bases question) to why does mint make your mouth feel cold? This is where the first piece of advice from my long-ago professor  comes in; feel free to steal my idea. My students love it, it keeps me learning new things, and it is a good chance to relate things back to organic chemistry. It helps students stay interested and motivated to come in to organic chemistry every week. It also reinforces material and is a way to show them that they have learned something useful in their everyday life. It is more or less the professor bringing those interest boxes right into the classroom.

The Karty organic textbook is a great place to start. Each chapter generally has a few interest boxes that tell interesting stories or are great examples of modern research, like quantum teleportation or nanocars. They serve the same sort of purpose in the text: to break up the chapter and to show off something cool, or relate the reactions and concepts to something from day to day life. For better or worse, my students tend to skip them when reading chapters and doing homework, so I feel confident in bringing those examples right into the classroom without being redundant. It does cost some lecture time to do, but losing a little time that I could spend on the core material is ok when I know I am improving the overall classroom experience and their “buy in” to the world of chemistry.

So yes, honestly to me those small and colorful interest boxes are one of the most important parts of my teaching. They keep me interested, they keep the students interested, and they serve as an excellent bridge between molecules on the page and molecules in the lab or everyday life. I couldn’t imagine a book without them, nor could I imagine teaching in the classroom without them. Steal this idea!!

-Andrew Robak, Keuka College
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