Students are Doin’ it for Themselves

As several contributors to this blog have pointed out, Joel Karty’s text introduces biochemistry topics early in the course through supplementary sections at the end of most chapters titled, “The Organic Chemistry of Biomolecules.” Many instructors have lauded this early inclusion of biomolecular topics as a motivator for biology majors and pre-professional students; one that facilitates understanding of subsequent and current coursework in biochemistry and biology. In addition, the modular nature of these sections provides significant flexibility for instructors, allowing us to decide what to teach and when to teach it.

During my year-long organic course for chemistry majors, I skipped over the biomolecule sections in the first quarter with plans to return with a single biochemistry unit in the spring quarter. Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out that way. The active learning emphasis of the course (see my previous post titled  POGIL and Mechanisms are Natural Allies) slowed our progress, leaving us without adequate time for a biochemistry unit at the end. Instead, I decided to introduce beginning biochemistry topics through take home portions of hour exams. The biomolecular topics addressed in these assignments include chirality in biochemistry, pH and amino acids, and major classes of biomolecules. Since the reference sections of the Karty text were from early in the course, student’s anxiety is reduced toward the self-directed learning experience. Ultimately, with the strong foundation afforded by the course and the Karty text, the students had developed skills necessary to handle this material on their own.

By the time we approached later biochemical topics, such as aromaticity and DNA (14.12), and mutarotation of monosaccharides (18.14), it was apparent that there would not be enough time for a large biochemistry unit at the end of the course. Thus, these topics were fit into their respective chapters, or soon thereafter. For example, heterocyclic aromaticity can be a rather obscure topic without the application of DNA base pairing. Likewise, hemi-acetal formation seems rather pointless without discussing monosaccharide cyclization, and biomolecular polymers fit naturally in a discussion of polymers of all types (Ch26).

By incorporating biomolecular topics in multiple ways and formats, my students apply organic structure and principles in biomolecular systems, in a manner seamlessly supported by the Karty text. Skipping early biomolecule sections allows students to focus on the organic chemistry fundamentals at the beginning of the course. Later, self-directed learning provides an introduction to structure and acidity topics in biomolecules, while grabbing the interest of the students with a biochemistry concentration. The introductory nature of the early topics also provide both a review of fundamentals or organic chemistry, and a confidence boost for students. Further along in the course, biochemistry-oriented topics fit well with the organic content surrounding them, providing  natural pathways linking organic chemistry and biomolecular subject matter, and therefore leaving my students with a more substantial understanding.

-Kimberley Cousins, California State University, San Bernardino

Putting Some (but not too much) Biochemistry in Organic Chemistry

One of the key features of our new organic chemistry curriculum at Middlebury College is that the premed students (and anyone else who is so inclined) can take biochemistry after just one semester of organic chemistry (vs. a whole year). I have previously written about these details and how well Joel’s mechanistically organized textbook helped us do that. One specific feature of the course that I and the students really like is that we spend the last two weeks or so of the term going through “organic chemistry in action” topics such as glycolysis, lipids, proteins, DNA & RNA, and carbohydrates. Typically we spend a day on each topic. It is easy to see why this is popular with students and the instructors of our subsequent biochemistry course, but how is it for me as an instructor?

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Biomolecules Hidden in Plain Sight

When I consider adopting a new textbook for a course, I have one main concern: my audience. I teach a wide variety of students; the chemistry major who began doing research his freshman year on his path toward graduate school, the psychology major who is concerned about his GPA and preparation for the MCAT, the art major who finds chemistry interesting enough to pursue a minor, and the biology major who is just hoping to pass to fulfill requirements for graduation. Balancing the needs and interests of such a varied audience is always a challenge, but careful choices in the organization and framing of the course can help.

Traditional textbooks have an organization based on functional groups, but my experience is that true mastery of a topic comes with an understanding of underlying concepts, enabling application to new situations. There is only so much a person can memorize, but building a mental model by making contextual connections using a strong framework leads to greater success and retention. Needless to say, Joel’s textbook and its mechanistic organization jumped out as an exciting change of pace with its emphasis on understanding the electron movement. But a quick glance through the table of contents begged the question, where is the chapter on biomolecules, the traditional bridge to the subsequent biochemistry course?

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The Three M’s: Motivating, Modernizing, and MCAT

At most colleges and universities, students enrolled in organic chemistry come from a variety of majors and pre-professional programs. At St. Kate’s, the organic sections are a 20/20/40 split of chemistry, food & nutrition science, and biology majors. Twenty percent of our students are enrolled in organic in order to fulfill prerequisites for a variety of pre-professional programs and to prepare for the MCAT or PCAT. These diverse demographics require me to purposefully prepare a variety of examples that connect a student’s career interests to organic chemistry concepts. In my experience, the examples that students typically find the most engaging have biology roots or are pulled from the most recent chemistry and technology advances.

In the past, I have not had time to teach the biochemistry chapters that often appear at the end of organic textbooks. This changed, however, when I started using Karty’s book, because his text includes “Organic Chemistry of Biomolecules” sections that appear at the end of chapters. Continue reading

How Should Biochemical Topics Be Treated in an Organic Textbook?

In most organic chemistry courses, the majority of students are biology majors and/or have their sights set on a career in medicine or other health-related field. My own course is no different. Therefore, like many organic instructors, I believe that students ought to see the relevance of organic chemistry to biology and medicine. Why is the course required for a degree in biology? Why is the course a prerequisite for medical school? One way for students to see this relevance is to show them how organic chemistry specifically applies to biology and medicine. One way to do this is by exposing students to some biochemical topics. But how? To what extent? And when?

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