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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").