The Right Time for Synthesis?

At Butler, we have four learning goals for our students in organic chemistry: to learn the language, drawing style, and three-dimensional structure of organic molecules; to know and apply organic reactions; to demonstrate understanding of reaction mechanisms; and to integrate this knowledge through synthesis. Of these learning objectives, the most difficult for students to embrace is synthesis. For many of them, this is the first time they have been asked to apply new knowledge at the college level. While we recognize that very few of our students are likely to become synthetic chemists, we feel that synthesis is a valuable intellectual tool to facilitate creative problem solving.

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Starting the Semester with My Biology Students in Mind

Like so many other organic courses, at my school approximately two-thirds of organic students are biology majors. Of these, most have some sort of pre-health professional aspiration. Because of this audience alongside my chemistry and biochemistry majors, I come to my organic classroom (as I know many of you do!) with two sets of course goals in mind; there is the amazing world of organic synthesis and mechanistic theory that I want to teach, and there is the looming MCATs, PCATs, and other standardized exams that many of the students have in their futures. The students need a solid foundation in organic chemistry as preparation for biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, and beyond, but I also want them to appreciate organic synthesis as beautiful and elegant and not simply a stepping stone to another course. The challenge for me has always been how to balance how much I should cater to my biology students, finding every possible biochemical hook to interest them and tying everything to a standardized exam question, versus pushing forward a chemical worldview where they learn to appreciate a molecular approach and to think like an organic chemist.

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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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Stuff Pre-Meds (and My Dad) Say, and What They Need to Hear

My father is a retired doctor and he’s never missed an opportunity to remind me that not once in his career in medicine did he need to APPLY the material he learned in college organic chemistry. And during office hours two weeks ago, a pre-health student flat-out told me she doesn’t see the point of organic chemistry for becoming a doctor.

What I told that student thereafter is the same thing that I tell other pre-health students with the same concern (and is the same thing I continue to tell my father…). Yes, the vast majority of doctors will never need to apply the material from organic chemistry. But that’s not why medical schools continue to require the course. Rather, from speaking with some members of medical school admissions committees, my understanding is that organic chemistry is part of the pre-med requirements primarily because, for most pre-med students, it is the only undergraduate course that will push them along the lines of critical thinking and problem solving. Medical schools want students who can do that well.

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MCAT2015 and the Future of Organic Chemistry

Two things are certain about premedical students: their numbers drive organic chemistry enrollments and their academic needs, as defined by medical schools, are going to change in 2015. As scientists, we know that we ignore data at our own peril. So what is to become of sophomore organic chemistry?

My journey began almost two years ago. As department chair, I responded to an ACS survey about how our curriculum had changed in response to the 2008 Committee on Professional Training revised guidelines for ACS certified programs. Chief among the revisions was a shift to “Foundation” and “In-Depth” courses in each of five key sub-disciplines. My response was “not at all.” Our curriculum was fine—a year of general chemistry, a year of organic chemistry, a year of physical chemistry, and then the rest around that. Who were they to tell us?

A few weeks later I attended a talk about the changing MCAT and medical school entrance requirements.

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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

The Benefits of a Mechanistically Organized Book When Teaching a 2-cycle Approach

Two-cycle organic chemistry is a pedagogical approach that has gained in popularity over the last couple decades. It’s a rather simple idea: The first semester course is treated as something of a survey, dealing primarily with the fundamentals, whereas the second semester revisits many of the same topics from the first semester, but treating them in greater depth. This two-cycle approach seems to be particularly advantageous for institutions whose biology majors (and other nonmajors) are required to take just one semester of organic chemistry. With less depth in each first-semester topic, nonmajors are exposed to more topics, and the material, moreover, can seem less intimidating. For chemistry majors and pre-health students, a significant benefit might come from the way that second-semester material is treated. Revisiting the first semester topics in greater depth represents an inherent review of the earlier material, allowing students to stay fresh on that material throughout the entire year. And because the second semester maintains a focus on the more challenging material, students should be better prepared for the final exam.

Despite these potential benefits, instructors who teach (or want to teach) a two-cycle organic course face a significant problem: Which book to use. Continue reading