Wisdom from Oregon Educators – Part I

I spent a few days in NW Oregon last week, mostly visiting educators.  It was an enjoyable trip, and gave me a lot to think about.  My first stop was to visit Dr. David Reingold, a chemistry professor emeritus from Juniata College.  I sought out Dr. Reingold specifically because of the role he had in pioneering a unique chemistry program at Juniata College.

Almost all college chemistry sequences begin with a year of “general chemistry” in the freshman year, a course that typically covers atoms, bonding, periodicity, thermodynamics, equilibrium, acid/base chemistry, and the like.  This is the course that Advanced Placement Chemistry attempts to simulate for high school students.  High schoolers who pass the AP Chem exam are sometimes placed in a special semester-long “rapid review” course in general chemistry during their first year in college.  Upon completion of general chemistry, students who continue their studies in chemistry usually take a full year organic chemistry course as a sophomore (or junior).

While there are a few reasons why ‘general chemistry’ is taught as the introductory course, there is no fundamental reason that it has to be that way.  A couple decades ago, professors at Juniata began to think about their chemistry program from the viewpoint of their students.  While a few of the students who enrolled in general and organic chemistry went on to become chemistry majors and professional chemists, they were by far the minority.  Most of the seats in these classes were filled by biology majors, pre-med and pre-vet students, and future environmental scientists and biomedical engineers.  Despite the fact that most of their audience were not destined to be academic chemists, the general and organic courses were all taught by academic chemists largely in the context of chemistry as a discipline (as opposed to, say, how and why chemistry might be useful to a biologist).  And the course that was most useful to biology and pre-med students, organic chemistry, was taught second in the sequence.  Taking organic chemistry as sophomores delayed the studies of these students, since many upper level biology courses (e.g. biochemistry, genetics) have an organic chem pre-requisite.

General chemistry is also the more mathematically rigorous course, requiring a great facility with functions (at the precal to calculus level), exponents and scientific notation, and logarithms.  Some entering students at Juniata had an extensive chemistry background in high school and were well-prepared in math, while others had a weaker math background and little high school chemistry.  The great diversity of student background and preparation in math and science made pitching a freshman general chem course at the appropriate level challenging.

Dr. Reingold and his colleagues decided to try a radical redesigning of their chemistry program.  They would offer organic chemistry first to all freshman who wanted to take chemistry, and incorporate within this new course some significant biological applications to show how organic is relevant to other scientific disciplines.  While general chemistry is often considered a pre-requisite for organic, there aren’t that many topics from gen chem that are critical to understanding organic.  However, there are a few (e.g. bonding and intermolecular forces, equilibrium, and acid/base), and the re-designed organic course began with an introduction to these subjects.  The addition of a few general chem topics and the incorporation of items relevant to biology and medicine inevitably meant less room in the organic course for some traditional content.  Some of the more technical reactions and more obscure topics had to be left out of the course (goodbye, Hell-Volhard-Zelinski Reaction).  While it may seem obvious to an 18 year-old pre-med student that understanding the chemistry of protein folding is more important than selective alpha-bromination of carboxylic acids,  these decisions were harder for the chemistry professors.  I salute their bold decision to try something completely new.  Implementing a radically different sequence and curriculum for the first two years was a big risk, and involved a great deal of effort on behalf of the chemistry faculty.  And perhaps more importantly, it forced them to step outside their comfort zone.  But they were willing to make the change because they thought it would benefit students.

There were, of course, no textbooks available for students taking an introductory chemistry course that focused on organic.  To support his students in their new course, Dr. Reingold wrote a text for them.  It’s called Organic Chemistry: An Introductory Text Emphasizing Biological Connections.  It’s a delightful book, written in a conversational style.  It makes organic concepts accessible to the introductory student without dumbing down the content.  You can order a copy from McGraw Hill or Amazon.

text

I found Dr. Reingold’s discussion of the course development and his philosophy fascinating, and I share his interest in making organic chemistry (and its many applications) available to a wider audience.  In many places organic chemistry has the reputation of being an incredibly difficult course filled with technical and esoteric knowledge – a “weed-out course” that serves principally to keep some students out of certain majors (or medical school).  While I acknowledge that this is how organic is presented in many colleges and universities, there is really nothing intrinsically difficult about organic chemistry.  And it has enormous relevance to the average American’s daily life.  Except for water, almost every molecule in the human body is organic.  Organic chemistry describes how your DNA replicates and proteins are made.  It explains how aspirin works, and gives clues to making the next generation of anti-cancer drugs.  Organic chemists are involved in studying and making the dye and fabric in your clothes, the rubber in your shoes and car tires, the Teflon on your skillet, the gasoline (or biodiesel) in your tank, and the plastic containers that hold everything from milk to medicines.  Organic chemistry describes how that soup and sandwich you had for lunch are converted into energy for your body, how soap is made and why it cleans, how Kevlar stops bullets despite being much less dense than steel, and why your oil-and-vinegar salad dressing separates.  These are some of the topics that I explore in my high school organic chemistry class, another class that attempts to introduce students to organic before their sophomore year in college.

In addition to talking to Dr. Reingold about the development of Juniata’s “organic first” curriculum, we also discussed a bit about his approach to teaching.  When I asked him directly “what is good teaching,” he thought for a while and then responded that a better question might be “what is good learning?”  This response further illustrates his philosophy that the student experience really matters, and should in fact be a central part of any course.  He spoke about “learning to think like a molecule” – in other words, being able to comprehend chemistry based on understanding the world at the molecular level.  What was happening to that molecule?  What forces were acting on it?  How does its conformation and geometry affect its behavior and reactivity?  What is the energy associated with the molecule, and how does this energy change?

Dr. Reingold also worked to make his classes as interactive as possible.  Since he had turned most of his lecture material into the textbook for the class, he felt that it was redundant to lecture again after assigning a reading from his book.  So, many of his classes involved students working together in groups.  Often there was a student who had completed the class the year before present in each group to help guide the discussion.  He also used personal clickers (like these) to pose questions to students and gather real-time, aggregated responses.

I was intrigued by the group quizzes that Dr. Reingold gave, using something called Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT).  Students are placed in small groups, and then given multiple choice quizzes with special answer sheets.  Before answering, all of the students in the group must agree on the answer.  Instead of places for shading-in a bubble, the answer sheets have a thin coating covering each answer choice.  When the students come to consensus, they “scratch off” the corresponding answer on the sheet with a coin (think of those scratch-off lotto tickets).  If the answer is correct, they get immediate feedback that they came to the correct conclusion.  The sheet also tells the students if the answer is wrong, and they then have the opportunity to discuss the question again and choose another answer.  This way, the group knows that they have answered every question correctly by the end of class, and the instructor can see which questions gave which students trouble (and potentially grade them accordingly, if it is a formal assessment).  There is a lot of educational psychology research indicating that immediate feedback is the most valuable kind, although this is often difficult to achieve in large group settings.  Dr. Reingold’s addition of the group aspect adds an interactive discussion component that increases the value of the activity.  In this way, it is as much a learning episode as an assessment episode.  I am definitely going to try this idea when I get back to Lakeside next year.

My conversation with Dr. Reingold was enjoyable and illuminating, and will provide food for thought for years to come.  You can contact him (and find his chemistry songs and raps!) at his website, and read more about chemistry at Juniata College here and here.

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