The year is 2020. I have spent the majority of the year at home with my two kids managing Zoom meetings and PPE-clad trips to the (wastelands to scavenge for toilet paper) grocery store. An idea forms: what if I gave my organic chemistry students essay assignments?

While writing in the sciences is nothing unusual, it is generally centered only around lab work and research. In a simple sense, I have three main educational goals for my organic students. The first two are for them to have a solid understanding of fundamental concepts and to be able to demonstrate skill in writing mechanisms. The third is that I want them to relate their chemistry knowledge to their daily lives. In my career teaching organic chemistry, this third goal is the one that tends to fall by the wayside for me, which is what I have sought to address by assigning  writing assignments. 

Joel Karty’s textbook does a great job helping students make those real-world ties with the small Connections break-out boxes and the larger, more complex Special Interest boxes. I have always assigned these sections as part of the chapter reading and will often use them as examples in class. I also do a weekly student-generated question session where I answer and discuss students’ questions like, “Why does mint make your mouth feel cold?” I’ve found that this helps bring up more real-world examples during lecture. What I eventually realized, however, was that none of these important parts of my course held any stakes for my students. They could casually enjoy the information, but they weren’t actively researching information, nor were they required to answer exam questions relating to this material. These new writing assignments became my way to accomplish my third goal and to get my students more actively involved in thinking about and making connections between chemistry and the greater world around us. 

In terms of what a typical essay assignment looks like, I use Karty’s Special Interest boxes from the chapter to frame the questions and to get students started on the essays. Chapter 25 has a section discussing free radicals in the human body and Vitamin E. I ask students to read the Special Interest box and write a short (around 1 page) essay explaining the difference between antioxidants and added food preservatives. Ideally, the students should recognize that there is a difference between the two and that some preservatives are radical antioxidants used to prevent oxidative spoilage, while some are used to prevent bacterial growth, for example. Students use the textbook as a starting point and think about how these chemistry principles work in the often misunderstood world of food additives.  

Another example of an essay assignment comes from the small Connections box in Chapter 12.  The book mentions heptan-2-one as an odor molecule in cheese. The essay prompt that I worked up for this section is: write about ketone molecules in cheese, explaining how they are generated (by bacterial enzymes) and what precursor organic molecules they come from (triglycerides).

This semester, I am teaching all online and assigning essays every other week (alternating with regular quizzes). I give the essays the same grading weight as quizzes (10 points each) and emphasize the overall goals of these assignments both in class and in my syllabus. Keeping the writing assignments to one page (typed and single-spaced)  makes them less onerous for my students to complete and cuts down on grading time for me. 

In having to redesign my organic chemistry course for online learning, I was finally able to come up with a way to address a major missing piece of my course learning outcomes, with the added bonus of reinforcing students’ need to read their textbooks. While I am still doing the majority of my work competing for a Wi-Fi signal in my (survival bunker) bedroom instead of my office, I call these essays a major win for 2021. 

Do you use writing assignments in your organic chemistry classes? I’d love to hear about what other faculty are doing. Please feel free to drop a comment below! 

-Andrew Robak, Keuka College

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2 thoughts on “Essays in Organic Chemistry

  1. Andrew, what a fantastic way to wrap together writing, student interests, and engagement with the textbook…all in one assignment! It’s particularly wonderful to hear how you’re actively making use of the CONNECTIONS boxes in the book. As you pointed out, those are far different from the Special Interest boxes, which go into depth tying a particular concept or reaction from the chapter to something that’s rather profound. The CONNNECTIONS boxes instead are really short and simple, and are scattered throughout each chapter to do two things. One is to help students answer the question: “How does this stuff relate to me and my life?” And as a student will see at least half a dozen times per chapter, the answer is…a lot! The second thing those CONNECTIONS boxes are intended to do is pique student interest, making them wonder “why” and “how”…? And the idea is to set students down the path of doing some digging, starting with something simple like a Google search. But you’ve really taken it to the next level with these assignments you’ve designed! Kudos to you!!


    1. Thanks Joel, so far the students have taken to it really well. I assigned one for the first week to set the expectations and the only problem I’ve run into was clarifying that they need to write it like an essay and not like a short answer test question. They are fun to read!

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