Issue Date: September 17, 2007
Chemistry Isn't Just For Majors
At the start of the semester, chemistry professor Keith Kostecka surveys his class at Columbia College Chicago, a liberal arts school where a quarter of the 12,000 undergraduate students major in film and video and none major in science. "Who doesn't like chemistry?" he asks. A bunch of hands go up. "Who had to memorize the periodic table of elements in a high school chemistry class?" The hands go up again.
It's a challenge for educators to excite students who have been turned off to science or who don't gravitate to learning about physical sciences in the first place. But dedicated professors at liberal arts colleges have created innovative chemistry courses specifically designed to appeal to nonscience majors. At the American Chemical Society national meeting in Boston last month, several chemistry professors described their classes in a full-day symposium sponsored by the Division of Chemical Education.
To fulfill what's often referred to as general education requirements, nonscience majors at liberal arts schools must take one to three science classes, depending on the institution. Enticing a few students from these classes to switch to a major in chemistry would be great, but the educators said that's not the goal. Instead, the curricula are intended to show nonmajor students how science relates to many areas of study and also to teach them how to use scientific concepts and inquiry to become responsible consumers and lifelong learners.
The required science courses could be the only science exposure that many of these students will get in college, and these courses help form their impressions, good or bad, of how science works, said assistant professor Dwight J. Tshudy of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., during his symposium presentation about a forensic chemistry course for nonmajors. The experience could affect the future of science if these students take up certain types of careers, for instance as a lawyer who defends a science-related patent or as a member of Congress who funds a chemist's work, he said.
Among their strategies for creating nonmajor chemistry classes, professors build on what students already know, such as cooking, or they focus on interdisciplinary topics that students see in popular media, including nanotechnology. Some chemistry faculty members pair their classes with ones with related curricular elements, such as environmental policy, that are taught in other departments, or they use teaching materials and methods that relate chemistry to the students' majors.
Every professor who spoke in the symposium has a doctorate in chemistry or chemical education. Most of them work at small schools that offer a chemistry major. Some of the professors rely primarily on a single textbook, while others provide reading material from various sources, including chemistry textbooks, newspapers, mainstream fiction, scientific journals, and magazines, including C&EN.
For small groups of students, one way to show how seemingly disparate topics are actually intertwined is via simultaneous registration for intentionally paired classes in two departments that together provide a science-and-society approach to education, the professors said. Educators use different names and variations for the strategy, which has been encouraged by campus-wide directives at some institutions. Alison B. Moore, an assistant professor at Belmont University in Nashville, referred to the strategy as a linked cohort course. Basically, 25 first-year students take her lab-based environmental chemistry class along with an introduction to public policy class taught by a political science professor in the same semester. By the end of the term, the students no longer view the disciplines as unrelated, Moore said.
Moore doesn't derive equations or describe the inner workings of analytical instruments, but the paired classes have common projects designed to help students understand the intricacies of selected scientific concepts and public policies. For example, the final assignment requires groups of four students to collect samples from a natural water source and evaluate them with analytical instruments. They prepare an advocacy paper based on their results concerning the quality of water in Tennessee that could be presented to state legislators. The students also make a related presentation in their classes.
Assistant professor Wendy deProphetis of Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., referred to a similar course model for first-year students as a learning community (LC). The same group of students takes up to three common classes, including a "reflective," writing-intensive class used to draw together two discipline-specific courses. The students participate in a related community service project as well. Students enrolled in the Emerging Health Concerns LC, for example, took classes in general chemistry and in health and society. In their reflective class, they discussed topics including ethics in the pharmaceutical industry, illegal drug trafficking, and racial profiling in medicine. Finally, the students participated in an experiential project with the Staten Island AIDS Taskforce involving general patient support services.
Other LC options at Wagner pair a chemistry class with a class in microeconomics or a class on environmental issues and medical ethics related to nanotechnologies and emerging technologies. DeProphetis said few students show any interest in chemistry before participating in an LC, but many of them show a significant interest afterward. And though the students' majors are usually undeclared, the chemistry course content does cover the material chemistry majors would need, she added.
While some schools create stand-alone chemistry courses for nonmajors by presenting watered-down sections of general chemistry courses originally designed for chemistry majors, more creative institutions offer nonmajors interdisciplinary courses on topics such as medicinal chemistry, nanotechnology, or forensics.
For instance, Martín G. Zysmilich, an assistant professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., teaches a medicinal chemistry course for nonmajors. In the class, he describes the mechanism of action of drugs that students have read about in newspapers. He says understanding mechanisms is more challenging for the students than the traditional method found in many textbooks of listing chemical structures of available drugs by ailment. The challenge for him is to present real chemistry and not just interesting facts, Zysmilich said. He introduces concepts from general and organic chemistry and bits of biochemistry as necessary. Once the students understand the relatively simple mechanisms of drugs such as antihistamines, he proceeds to more complex processes, including those involving antiviral and anticancer drugs.
At Wabash College, a men's school in Crawfordsville, Ind., assistant professor Lon A. Porter Jr. also takes the interdisciplinary approach. He teaches half-semester minicourses on topics such as nanotechnology or forensics. He uses the topics as examples to impart fundamental knowledge about scientific concepts, research processes, and funding as well as how to extract information from scientific literature.
Nanotechnology works well because it's everywhere, Porter said. He has students read widely, drawing sources from science fiction to newspapers to scholarly literature. The students also investigate the performance claims of some nanobased products on the market. He uses the National Nanotechnology Initiative as an instructive example for discussing how nanotechnology research is guided and publicly funded.
Teaching chemistry by using materials or methods relevant to students' majors or personal lives also piques the nonmajor's interest. Kostecka, who has been teaching at Columbia for nearly 20 years, refers to movies and TV shows as much as possible because he finds that teaching with these media resonates with television, film, and other communications majors. "I can get a lot of mileage out of the 'Mythbusters' programs," he said. "Mythbusters" is a Discovery Channel series hosted by special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who scientifically test myths and legends. Kostecka also presents his class with science-related online video clips from YouTube as they become available.
For the course's final project, Kostecka requires his students to do something that "incorporates their interests, hobbies, talents, and/or cultural backgrounds with an area at the cutting edge of science." He mentioned an art and design student who wrote about and drew original artwork depicting the chemistry of mercury poisoning in "Little Nick and the Mercury Factory," which was modeled after "Alice in Wonderland."
While fiction and TV are particularly relevant for some students, getting dinner on the table is a priority for others. At Purdue University North Central in Westville, Ind., more than half of the students are nontraditional undergraduates who work off campus and live with families of their own. "Students tend to be more familiar with cooking than chemistry," said assistant professor Rosa E. Rivera-Hainaj, who used to co-own a restaurant. So in her chemistry class for nonmajors, she tries to build on what the students know by explaining chemistry concepts through laboratory experiments, many of which could also take place in the kitchen.
For example, the students learn dimensional analysis by converting flour measurements from cups into SI units. They isolate pigments from various foods and use them to create a color spectrum. Making salad dressings provides an opportunity to understand emulsions. The students harness the properties of a polymer—cornstarch—dissolved in cold water to make gravy without lumps. Reading nutritional labels takes on a whole different meaning for students who have learned the analytical techniques to extract and quantify iron content from cereals, Rivera-Hainaj said.
By the end of the class, many students said they had gained an appreciation for how much fun science could be and that they were better informed as consumers. In some cases, they spread that excitement to their friends and families. A child of one of the students asked Rivera-Hainaj, "Can you teach my mom some more recipes?"
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