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Lab Safety

Is there a crisis in organic chemistry education?

Teachers say yes, but most of the problems aren’t new

by Bethany Halford
March 28, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 13

Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN
A drawing of a student asleep at a desk surrounded by organic chemistry textbooks.
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN

Symposium organizers drew attention to a session earlier this month at the ACS national meeting in San Diego with a provocative title: “Is There a Crisis in Organic Chemistry Education?” But many of the speakers—most of whom work in academic publishing—responded with a “no,” threatening to deflate the advertised anxiety.

Quite the contrary, they said. Never before have organic chemistry students and teachers had so many resources at their disposal: a wealth of textbooks, electronic study guides, and databases with tens of thousands of questions.

But educators in the audience took issue with the speakers’ view. All those resources don’t mean there’s not a crisis, educators in the audience said. Organic chemistry is a tough subject for students. Figuring out the best way to teach it to time-strapped students continues to be a challenge, particularly as colleges and universities grapple with curriculum changes and the volatile chemistry employment market.

The symposium title reflects a good deal of hand-wringing among organic chemistry educators in recent years. A rough job market for organic chemists and a revamped Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which de-emphasizes the subject, has made teachers wonder if fewer students will take the course.

At the moment, this fear seems to be unfounded. For the symposium, Maureen Rosener and Sandi Kiselica of the education company Cengage Learning surveyed their company’s organic chemistry clients. They found that only 6% had seen a drop in organic chemistry enrollment, while 33% had seen an increase.

Organic chemistry supports more students than just premed students, Rosener said. Many students will pursue other careers in health care, such as dentistry and nursing. These students usually have to take biochemistry, for which two semesters of organic chemistry is a prerequisite at most colleges and universities.

Join the conversation.

Use of the word “orgo” in this story brought up some strong feelings in readers. Read some of their comments, check out the results of a Twitter poll conducted by fellow C&EN reporter Jyllian Kemsley (@jkemsley) gauging public perception of the word, and join the conversation below.

Please, do not ever shorten “organic” or “organic chemistry” to “orgo.” I cringed every time I saw that in the article and almost stopped reading it.
Gail Shelly, March 28, 2016 8:18 PM

“P-chem” is physical chemistry, “o-chem” or “orgo” is organic chemistry, “gen-chem” is general chemistry, “cal” is calculus ... deal with it.
Rick Venegas, April 4, 2016 9:03 PM

I do not think shortening “organic chemistry” to “orgo” is an affront to the subject but rather simply recognizes that is what probably 99% of college students call it.
Crystal Baus, March 30, 2016 4:19 PM

Using the term “orgo” disrespects the discipline. Sounds like a monster (ogre? orc?) from Middle Earth and could be considered an affront.
Jeff, April 5, 2016 12:15 PM

Educators see a different kind of crisis in orgo, as organic chemistry is sometimes called—not one of enrollment declines but one of student understanding.

“The fact is organic chemistry textbooks have not changed in 50 years. It’s the same approach,” said Jerome Haky, an organic chemistry professor at Florida Atlantic University who was in the audience. He pointed out that students’ struggles with orgo also haven’t changed: Many still find it difficult to grasp. “We need to think of a different approach. We need to work with the educational community to figure out how people learn,” Haky said. He challenged publishers to invest in fundamental research to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Melanie Cooper, a chemistry education professor at Michigan State University who presided over the symposium, also discussed the struggles students have with orgo. “I don’t think there’s a current crisis. I think there’s always been a crisis,” she said. What educators find, Cooper said, is that “students come out of general chemistry typically very unprepared, and organic chemistry faculty simply don’t understand how unprepared their students are.”

Although general chemistry is usually a prerequisite for organic chemistry, the two courses are very different. The former is largely quantitative, while the latter requires a new kind of qualitative thinking. Orgo teachers hope that their students come to realize that organic chemistry operates through just a few underlying fundamentals, she said, but the students often can’t see them. “Our studies have shown they can go through an organic chemistry course and not understand some fundamental ideas.”

Companies that make educational resources, such as textbooks, continue to offer more and more products to help struggling students. Many of the symposium’s speakers talked about organic chemistry texts that try to provide biological examples of certain chemistries for students headed toward medical professions. The speakers also pointed to their electronic resources, such as study guides and reaction databases.

But the wealth of resources may actually be a problem. Students are faced with so much information from so many disparate resources, Cooper said, that they’re completely overwhelmed. “They are forced into this memorization mode,” she said. “They can’t take in the fire hose of information.”

“I don’t think the crisis in teaching organic chemistry is because there are no good books or sufficient publisher-provided resources,” said Manashi Chatterjee, an organic chemistry faculty member at Hunter College, City University of New York, who was in the audience. “It’s that many students are overwhelmed by the number of classes they are taking and their work schedules.” Students often won’t use the extra resources unless they count toward their final grade, she said. She’s found that to effectively teach organic chemistry she must also teach her students study skills and time management.

Jessica Tischler, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Michigan, Flint, who was also in the audience, agreed. She has tried to experiment with the new tools companies have developed in the past 10 years. “But I’ve found that in the end the students never really have time to take advantage of any them,” she said.

Many students at Tischler’s school are on financial aid and have to juggle work and family responsibilities, such as caring for their children, parents, or siblings, all while trying to maintain full-time status as students. On top of that, she noted, many are taking a course load full of challenging science classes. “At some point more resources just don’t help anymore,” she explained.

Publishers have worked to provide teachers with many different kinds of resources, said symposium speaker Sean Hickey, an organic chemistry instructor at the University of New Orleans who also works for John Wiley & Sons. “There’s almost an overload of information,” he said. “I think one of the big things publishers really need to work on is curation of content.” What publishers need to do, Hickey said, is to carefully choose which pieces of multimedia content will be most effective at getting a concept across.

“We’ve all been searching for different ways to organize organic chemistry differently and make it easy,” said symposium co-organizer Donna Nelson, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma and the current American Chemical Society president. Even so, she said, “students have been saying that organic chemistry is difficult for a long time.”

Crisis or not, that doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon.  


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