Through their study of organic chemistry, my students are immersed in an environment in which they use their fundamental knowledge of chemistry to rationalize interesting reactivity of organic molecules and to solve problems encountered in current research. It is my vision that they leave the course with an appreciation for how chemical structure imparts function to many natural and synthetic molecules in the world around us, and that they feel empowered to acquire and use complex data to propose explanations for phenomena they encounter in their upper level courses and in their broader experiences as scientists.
Since I began teaching organic chemistry, my favorite demonstration in class has been “gun cotton”. Through chemical manipulation of cellulose (in the form of cotton balls that can easily be obtained at the drug store), with just one touch of a hot glass rod, a spontaneous combustion occurs, leaving not a trace of organic solid behind. Aside from evoking a little fear and a lot of awe in my students, this demonstration gives me a memorable example to incorporate into our discussion of two important topics: aromatic substitution reactions and carbohydrate structures. On the first day, I will encourage the students to put forth guesses as to why the cotton ball is explosive. This plants the seed that the properties of molecules are directly correlated to their chemical structure, and introduces the role of chemists as scientists who have the ability to manipulate those properties to engineer the world around us. When we discuss the nitration of aromatic molecules, students learn the specific reaction conditions used to make gun cotton, and when we discuss carbohydrates, they are able to apply those conditions seen before to this unique structure, and think about how a highly nitrated cellulose derivative is obtained which has highly explosive properties.
Beyond demonstrations, I often use pertinent real world examples on problem sets and exams to help students apply the knowledge from lecture to explain otherwise mysterious circumstances. For example, during the study of a class of molecules known as esters, I assigned students the structure of a nerve gas agent that was making headlines in the news. I asked them to identify the structural similarities between an ester and the agent, and to propose how this agent gets stuck in an important esterase enzyme in the neurological signaling pathway. Such exercises train them to approach unforeseen information with a methodical process, relying on the knowledge they have obtained, while simultaneously encouraging them not to fear creativity and thought beyond specific substrates we have discussed in lecture. During the current semester, I am teaching in Shanghai, China, and I have created an assignment asking students to identify and propose a structural study of a molecule from current literature in Chinese medicine. I look forward to incorporating more assignments of this nature, which highlight the relevance of the course to the well being of the greater community, and which offer an opportunity for experimental design.
In conjunction with the in class assignments, students are challenged to select a small project to carry out in the laboratory. I have adapted this original assignment developed in our department to encompass two additional weeks of the curriculum. Students not only learn how to pose a question and design an experiment to answer that question, but they have the opportunity to carry out the experiment and evaluate the real data obtained. Based upon the results, they are given an opportunity to repeat and modify experiments or collect additional data. The culmination of the experience will be a poster session. The analysis of real data can be frustrating and sometimes does not lead to a conclusion immediately, and through this exercise, students become comfortable with the process of scientific research and feel a personal connection to the work they are doing in the lab.
While the specific assignments detailed above provide students with practice, exposure, and opportunities for growth, I do not underestimate my role as an instructor to guide them through the process, and to create an environment where each individual can achieve success. This particular course can be a challenging endeavor for our pre-health students, and I find that reaching out to students who appear to be struggling leads to greater success. I am committed to calling each student by name as well to offering meetings after examinations to determine strategies for improved performance in the class. I have found that particularly for students from under-represented populations in STEM, this has yielded positive results. A student noted in a previous evaluation of my teaching that, “the instructor was very supportive throughout the course and demonstrated that she cared about whether we needed help with the subject or not. In addition, she was helpful during recitation section, as well as laboratory, and successfully made this intimidating class, enjoyable and interesting.”
It is my goal that students exit this course more fascinated by science than they enter it, and that they develop the skills essential to make meaningful contributions to science. I intend in the coming years to continue to evolve the strategies I am using to intellectually and personally engage our students.