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Preparing students for the future

New offering from CAS enhances mastery of undergraduate organic chemistry concepts

by Michael Eisenstein, C&EN Media Group Contributor Editor

Generations of organic chemists have received their foundational training from educational programs grounded in the “holy trinity” of lecture, textbook, and labs. But some educators, such as Laura Serbulea at the University of Virginia, have begun to feel that this combination is no longer sufficient to give future chemists the full skill set they need.

Serbulea teaches two semesters of separate lecture and lab courses for students in her school’s accelerated organic chemistry program and has noticed a serious gap between the two. “These students are very focused, and they are very good at processing information,” she says. “But when they go to the lab and have the opportunity to carry out an experiment related to what they’ve learned in the lecture, they have a hard time making that transition.”

Compared to the reality of the bench, textbook material can seem hopelessly abstract—professors seek a solution designed to make textbook material relevant by pointing students to accessible peer-reviewed literature. “A lot of people are accustomed to doing a quick Google search and sorting through the refuse to get what they need, and that bothers professors,” says Mindy Pozenel, Academic Market Manager at CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society. “They want their students to be accustomed to finding and reading peer-reviewed research.”

Over the course of the past year, CAS has been working with chemistry professors to test Chemistry Class Advantage (CCA), an educational solution developed by CAS to help undergraduates grow the critical thinking and analytical skills needed to make sense of the organic chemistry literature. The premise of CCA is simple. Regardless of where one is studying organic chemistry, the first year’s coursework touches on the same core set of principles and fundamental synthetic reactions, and CCA comprises a set of lessons designed to reinforce those principles and reactions with directly relevant examples from the literature.

Each lesson begins with introductory material helping to establish some context. “These talk about the real-world applications of the chemistry you’re studying, whether it’s pharmaceutical development or enhancing a polymer’s properties for use in a tire,” says Pozenel. The lesson introduction serves as a jumping off point for a guided search of the literature using SciFinder, which helps students to dig out relevant articles from one of the American Chemical Society’s large family of organic chemistry-related journals. Students then read the article and answer a series of questions that probe the student’s comprehension of the material, procedures and analyses that the researchers performed in the published work. “It’s about searching skills and critical reading of the literature,” says Pozenel.

Initial testing of CCA began with a small-scale pilot program in the spring of 2016, which included 270 students from 26 schools. Feedback was strongly positive. “The papers… were fantastic, since they were at a level that undergraduates could read, and they could quickly identify reactions learned in class,” said Kimberly Choquette, an assistant professor of chemistry at Drew University. According to Pozenel, CAS relied heavily on outside experts from the academic world to assemble and curate the material in these lessons. “We contracted subject-matter experts—professors who are currently teaching organic chemistry – who generated the original lessons for us,” she says. “Then we had a review board of five professors, also teaching organic chemistry, who critically evaluated each lesson and gave us comments.”

“The solution is designed to enhance students’ ability to understand real world applications for the concepts found in their textbooks,”

— Mindy Pozenel, Academic Market Manager at CAS

For many professors, this is the first time using any online teaching aid in their coursework, but they found relevant ways to integrate it into their educational program. “I have one project where, in the second semester of the course, the student has to write a research proposal… they don’t have to do anything experimental, but they have to propose a new idea,” says beta participant Ingrid Montes, who teaches courses for organic chemistry majors at the University of Puerto Rico. “The skills that they have for search and literature reading are not the best, so I have to develop them—and I believe this kind of resource could help me to do that.”

Montes notes that all of the students who completed the course also completed the lesson, which she offered as extra credit. Serbulea was able to match a larger number of CCA lessons to her coursework, and found them to be a helpful addition. “For my lecture course, I was able to deploy 15 lessons, and for the lab course I was able to deploy 10,” she says, “and these were different lessons for each class.”

At both institutions, students responded positively to this addition to the curriculum. Montes notes that in her department, upwards of 70% of students will be actively engaged in laboratory research at some point during their time at university and that her class appreciated the guided exposure to the literature. “All of them were very excited because they found the information within the papers connected with the modules,” she says. “This is important to me because they are going to be chemists and they need to develop these skills as soon as possible.”

From Serbulea’s perspective, the questions in the lessons also forced students to pay attention to small details that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, but which can play an outsized role in determining whether an experiment succeeds. “It’s not just ‘this is the reaction we are carrying out and this is the product’,” she says. “You have all these details about what compounds were tried out for this particular reaction and how different solvents affect the yield or the outcome or the product in the reaction.”

CAS will continue to offer free trial access throughout the winter and spring of 2017. According to Pozenel, the solution will be used by individual students in chemistry departments. “The solution is designed to enhance students’ ability to understand real world applications for the concepts found in their textbooks,” says Pozenel. “This will be highly valuable for the organic chemistry student and may also serve as a refresher for other students as they progress in their research studies.”

CCA includes 103 lessons spanning 12 topics covering standard subject matter from both semesters of a typical organic chemistry curriculum—ranging from alkanes, alkenes, and alkynes to amines to carbohydrates. “I ask my students to find news covering something that could have a negative impact or help the environment,” says Montes, “and I think it would be awesome to get these resources for ‘green chemistry’ concepts.” She also notes that tools like CCA could offer flexibility in meeting changing educational standards, such as those proposed by bodies like the ACS Committee on Professional Training, which would be far less feasible with conventional teaching tools such as textbooks.

But even in its first iteration, Serbulea believes that CCA may finally give her students the bridge they need to link lecture and lab. “They’re learning how to search the literature—I have a novel task that I need to carry out, so how do I research it using SciFinder?” she says. “It’s a matter of how you think about the project that you’re carrying out in the research lab more independently, so that it’s not just doing what you’re told to do.”