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Monday, March 14, 2016

Editorial: What's the Point of Organic Chemistry Education?

On Monday, the American Chemical Society National Meeting hosted a presidential symposium entitled "Is There a Crisis in Organic Chemistry Education?" This is a provocative question that has been floating around the community of chemistry educators for some time.

The panel of presenters consists mostly of representatives for academic publishers like Elsevier and McGraw-Hill, and their 15-minute talks focused on what their respective companies are doing to innovate and enable learning in new ways for students. From the publishing perspective, changes in curriculum seem motivated by changes in the assessment of that curriculum - namely, standardized tests like the GRE and MCAT which are used as metrics for admission into more advanced degree programs.

The audience, however, seemed to consist mostly of academics and educators largely responsible for teaching the content. The symposium concluded with a panel-style discussion between the presenters and the audience in which audience members picked brains, voiced concerns, and shared experiences regarding organic chemistry instruction. But the symposium's central question never really got answered.

Instead, the discussion between the panelists and attendees revealed a bit of a gray area on what the purpose of the organic chemistry course is or, perhaps, should be. Is it to prepare pre-meds for medical school and increase their MCAT scores? Is it to prepare chemistry students for graduate education? Is it to challenge them with a new way of thinking? Do we actually anticipate that students will remember the intimate details of reactivity presented in organic chemistry classes two or three years later? Should we have one or two semesters - or more?

The comments exchanged between panelists and audience members suggested that all of these purposes are at play. One audience member with over thirty years of experience in teaching actually surveyed medical schools and asked why they even require organic chemistry. According to him, the most insightful reply he received was that organic chemistry tends to be the first time that students are forced outside of their comfort zone. Contrasted with general chemistry, which is very algebraic, organic chemistry introduces the language of molecular architecture.

Another audience member corroborated, adding that organic chemistry forces students to develop spatial reasoning and study habits that they did not need to get by in previous courses. She actually claimed that these skills were the most important take-aways from an organic chemistry course.

To me, the discussion suggested that individual academics and publishers may approach organic chemistry with different goals or different sets of goals in mind. Maybe, in the quest to optimize organic chemistry courses to best serve students, organic chemistry educators need to come to a consensus on what particular way students are best served. For example, if the goal is truly to introduce foreign concepts of molecular architecture, should courses cover a more narrow scope of reactions and functional groups to make more time to hammer that concept home?

The question isn't only important to academics. Publishers are essentially communicators of scientific education materials, and the first step in any effective communication is sitting down and deciding what the goal of that communication ought to be.

Is there a crisis in organic chemistry education? I don't know. But what I did see during the presidential symposium was an opportunity for publishers and educators to work more closely on refining organic chemistry education's identity and the goals it seeks to accomplish.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Oxygen's Alchemical Origins: The Phlogiston Story

Today, everybody knows about oxygen. We know that it fuels fires and keeps us breathing. It seems to us one of the most basic elements of life, ubiquitously available, irrefutably present. Oxygen is obvious.
But it wasn't always.

Maybe you would have liked chemistry a little more
if your book looked like this. Photo credit: Paul K./flickr.com
Let's rewind the clock to the late 1660's, when chemistry texts still looked like spellbooks. At that time, the practice of chemistry was still very much rooted in alchemy - a rich mixture of science, occultism, and superstition. In his 1667 publication of Physica Subterranea, German alchemist Johann Joachim Becher outlined the theory of a fundamentally flammable element called terra pinguis. Substances that burned easily in air, like oils, waxes, and metals, were rich in terra pinguis. Becher's theory was taken up again and refined in the early 1700s by Georg Ernst Stahl, who renamed terra pinguis to phlogiston (from Greek, "burning up").

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Great Blogs by Women in Science

What's the day-to-day like for women in science or engineering?

I don't know, ask them. They're out there, doing science, living life, and blogging about it.

For chemistry aficionados, Michelle Francl-Donnay (@MichelleFrancl) at The Culture of Chemistry has a real knack for finding topics in language, teaching, and politics that relate to chemistry in an exciting way. Raychelle Burks (@DrRubidium) of Thirty-Seven is an analytical chemist who does fantastic outreach in support of increasing STEM's inclusiveness towards women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks. Kat Day (@chronicleflask) of the chronicle flask has already called BS on one overhyped health article this year (and blogs a lot of other great chemistry stuff). Beth Haas (@belehaa) at Casual Science and Jenny Martin at cubistcrystal blog their reflections on their careers as chemists and educators, and Anna (@Lady_Beaker) at Chemistry Intersection is documenting her quest for a Ph. D. Jyllian Kemsley (@jkemsley) covers chemical safety in industry and academia for Chemical & Engineering News's The Safety Zone. Stephani Page (@ThePurplePage) runs the blog #BLACKandSTEM. The husband and wife team of Geoffrey and Ruth Bowers (@CarChemProf) is behind Understanding Chemistry through Cars, which has a great perspective combining knowledge of the automotive industry with some of its fundamental chemistry. Last, but not least, Carmen Drahl (@carmendrahl) covers exciting and timely chemistry news at Forbes.

There are great blogs covering topics in other areas of science as well. Thus Spake Zuska (@TSZuska) writes beautifully, relaying stories and perspectives from STEM, politics, personal life, and the areas between. Ulli Hain (@ulli_hain) at Science Extracted covers a range of topics in research with an emphasis on ethics. The women of Portrait of the Scientist document their lives as they pursue a number of different science and science-adjacent paths.

Finally, leveling the playing field for women in STEM is an area for activism and outreach as well as personal reflection. STEM Women (@STEMWomen) is a team of three scientists who aim to bring female scientists together and increase their visibility to the public through blogs, videos, and other great content. Soapbox Science (@SoapboxScience) is a media initiative doing much the same by bringing scientists from around the UK "to the soapbox" to talk about their lives and careers in public presentations. And, unless you just plain hate joy, you've got to follow GeekGirlCon (@GeekGirlCon).

I originally wanted to put this blogroll together to raise awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault in scientific workplaces. But here's the whole story on that: it happens. A lot. It happens in lecture halls and on research cruises and in meetings and on archaeological digs. It happens to women and scientists of all demographics. Sometimes it's not a secret. It has almost assuredly happened to someone you know. It's unacceptable, it's repugnant, it needs to stop.
The links above are, for the most part, to stories from larger outlets dealing with statistics and responses to well-publicized cases. I wanted to go out and find survivors who have shared their stories, to point out that yes, this happens to real people and it's an intensely personal issue.

I abandoned that search without having found very much. And of course not, I thought. The stakes of publishing a post like that are too high, the emotions too real, and the internet atmosphere too hostile. In the event an investigation actually does get started, it can be a nightmare for the complainant, and it's too easy to misstep.

But how about this stunning revelation? Scientists don't want to write about sexual harassment. These women didn't start science blogs so they could write posts about how hostile their work environments are. They didn't sign up to be scientists so that they could be harassed or worse. We - all of us - became scientists because we're fascinated by some aspect of the material or social world and we want to poke it with a stick. That experience is what scientist-bloggers are publishing about.

Normalizing marginalized voices in our scientific community is critical to achieving equality. Add some of these excellent writers to your feeds. They all speak for themselves.

Special thanks to Beth Haas, Jyllian Kemsley, Chemjobber, Renee Webster, and the rest of Chemistry Twitter for helping me find all of these bloggers. If you know of someone else that I've left off, feel free to add in the comments.