Chemistry, Without the Dreaded Organic Chem Course

Emory’s department revamps curriculum -- and moves away from the traditional model in U.S. higher education.

October 23, 2017
 
Tracy McGill, right, is a senior lecturer at Emory University's chemistry department.

Students taking up science majors at Emory University won’t have to worry about the horrors of organic chemistry their sophomore year anymore. The chemistry department has scrapped the course for current first-year and incoming students.

But that doesn’t mean students won’t be learning the principles behind organic chemistry. In fact, they’ll be exposed to some of those concepts even earlier in their academic career.

Emory’s chemistry department is on its way to a new curriculum. Previously, students took two semesters of general chemistry and two semesters of organic chemistry as the basis for their major. Now, as part of a sweeping curriculum reform, those classes have been replaced with what the department hopes will be a more interdisciplinary and holistic approach.

General chemistry I and II have been replaced by the courses Structures and Properties and Introduction to Reactivity. Organic chemistry I and II have been replaced by Advanced Reactivity and Macromolecules.

The old program “is a program you’ll see at many if not most of the institutions in the U.S., and we’ve been doing it for a long time,” said Doug Mulford, a senior chemistry lecturer and director of undergraduate studies for Emory’s chemistry department. “It’s not that it doesn’t work, right? Because we’re producing chemists. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to do it. It wasn’t ever rationally designed -- this curriculum just kind of built up over the years.”

Additionally, Mulford said, the original curriculum emerged as a way to teach chemists who then would go straight into industry. Now, not only are more non-industry-minded students taking up chemistry, he said, but most students can’t get a private-sector job with merely a bachelor’s degree.

The changes apply to non-chemistry majors -- especially those planning to go to medical school -- as well. The courses were designed with Medical College Admission Test guidelines in mind, Mulford said, and with the blessing of Emory's medical school dean.

The move, 10 years in the making, sets Emory's apart from most chemistry departments in the world, bucking the notion of how people think chemistry “should” be taught.

Though the traditional trajectory of chemistry education -- general courses followed by organic courses, before delving into specialized courses -- has been in place for decades, the actual scientific field has not been nearly as stagnant. More and more, Emory professors said, the field has diversified and become more interdisciplinary, leading professors to wonder why the curriculum wasn’t reflecting that reality.

“We had become very divisional in the way that we teach chemistry,” Mulford said. “I almost feel like we have focused so much in these specialties and divisions, we’ve lost the bigger picture, the connections between the parts.”

The new program instead aims to “tell a more interesting and more connected story of chemistry,” he said.

Tracy McGill, who taught a pilot version of Structures and Properties and Introduction to Reactivity last year, said that the new course system examines chemistry from a conceptual level instead of by rigorously defined subjects.

“We don’t have the same population [of students who took chemistry in decades past], we don’t have the same goals, so we went to a curriculum that was more blended at the introductory level,” said McGill, a senior lecturer in chemistry. “It kind of dismantled the barriers before general and organic chemistry, and physical chemistry, and said, ‘Chemistry is chemistry.’”

If few of her colleagues would consider themselves solely one type of chemist, McGill asked, then why would they teach students in such siloed classes?

While other colleges have overhauled a class or two, Mulford and McGill said that, in order to really accomplish the department’s goals, a complete overhaul was necessary. When designing the first course in the new series, professors focused on the atom and concepts surrounding it -- whether based in organic chemistry or general chemistry. Building the next class, professors then asked what students would be able to learn given that knowledge, once again, regardless of the prior divisions between subjects.

But like any change, it didn’t come easily. McGill said that discussions around changing the curriculum were happening 10 years ago, although it wasn’t until 2013 that she and others were able to convince the faculty and the department to consider the changes in earnest.

“[Chemistry education] has been the same for 80 years, and we all grew up in that same system,” she said.

McGill, who was part of the steering committee that designed the new curriculum, said that the results from the pilot were impressive. Students were asking better questions, having deeper discussions and engaging more in the classroom.

Ashley Diaz took the pilot courses last year. Now she’s back in the old track -- current freshmen are the first year to go through the new class structure as a whole -- taking organic chemistry. She said that the pilot courses have prepared her better than her traditional-track peers. Additionally, she said, she came out of those courses with a comprehensive understanding of chemistry, rather than a fragmented view.

Instead of learning -- and being expected to memorize -- that “A plus B equals C,” Diaz said she learned “why you are mixing A and B.”

“My main takeaway is it’s not memorization, it’s all critical thinking and problem solving,” she said.

In fact, the pilot course is already coming in handy for Diaz, a sophomore studying chemistry and neurobiology and behavioral biology. She was offered a spot in a lab based on her exposure to organic chemistry her freshman year. On the previous track, she would have had to wait until her junior year to take the position.

Being a science department, of course, means relying on more than just anecdotes. The department is tracking student data as the new courses are implemented to see how well the new curriculum works, and if students are learning better than they used to.

“In my interactions with colleagues at other institutions and faculty at other institutions, people oftentimes ask why in the world I would take on that responsibility,” said Stefan Lutz, chair of the chemistry department. “One of the aspects is, of course, that I believe this new way of exposing students to chemistry is not just kind of a wan thing, but that it actually will set a new trend.”

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