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Talking organic chemistry

April 18, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 16

“Overwhelmed by Orgo” (C&EN, March 28, page 24) on the crisis in organic chemistry education struck a chord. As an organic chemistry instructor at the university level for more than 20 years, I can attest to a noticeably diminished student capacity to handle the subject with each passing semester.

It should be emphasized, however, that organic chemistry is not and was never intended to be an easy discipline to master. Hand-wringing over new teaching techniques or providing yet another clone of the texts is an exercise in futility. Jazzing up texts with pictures and graphics does little more than inflate already obscene prices.

My suggestions to include at least a rudimentary introduction to organic chemistry in the preparatory general chemistry curricula have been met universally with stiff resistance. As a result, students are thrown into the deep end with no swimming lessons.

But the core problem is endemic to science education in general. Students go unchallenged through their first 12 years of formal education, rewarded exclusively by rote memorization with no opportunity to develop skills in critical thinking and problem solving by analogy, essential elements of organic chemistry. Disturbingly, many of those considered successful at the university level are so only because rote memorization is now embraced by their professors as well.

Robert G. Davis
Naugatuck, Conn.

It was interesting to read about the growing “overload of information” that is challenging students of organic chemistry. Indeed, this issue of “big data” is being felt across the sector. Chemists—from education, to research, to industry—all need access to a multitude of different facts from myriad sources. But even though chemists have the option today of using numerous different tools to search sources, access to data is meaningless unless search results present relevant data that help to reveal insights. Never has the phrase “quality over quantity” been more appropriate.

Chemistry, particularly inorganic chemistry, is a highly complex area of science. For search tools to be useful to students, they must not only be able to act as a repository for huge amounts of data, but also be able to curate, analyze, filter, and present the exact piece of information required back to the user. Databases and search tools must therefore be able to contextualize and classify information and make links between data sources that add real value to a chemist’s work: for example, by combining experimental chemical data with published literature to provide rapid access to required facts.

Chemistry has the power to change the universe that we live in for the better. It’s imperative that the chemistry community does all it can to ensure students have access to the right data, at the right time. This will empower the next generation of chemists to further their knowledge and help them realize the value of the information at their fingertips.

Thibault Geoui

In C&EN’s article, Melanie Cooper, a chemistry education professor at Michigan State University, states, “Students come out of general chemistry typically very unprepared.” Worse, I’ve found, they graduate college very unprepared.

I routinely give a 12-question chemistry quiz to interviewees/applicants looking for employment as a bench chemist. I have found that they and even some recent hires are poorly prepared for jobs in chemistry. For instance, they cannot explain the difference between a weak acid and a dilute acid or the difference between an end point and an equivalence point.

One interviewee, prior to taking my short chemistry quiz, told me he tutored chemistry, but he only got 6.5 correct answers out of 12. And a recent graduate with a B.A. in chemistry whom I had hired, and who has thankfully left, didn’t know that mercury was a liquid.

Who lets these people graduate high school or college? Educators should be held liable for poorly educating students. Some teachers are “teaching-disabled.” If you really want to improve the quality of chemistry students going into the working world, put pressure on the secondary schools and colleges to stop graduating those who simply put in four years. The education and work ethic are not there.

Fred G. Schreiber
Newark, N.J.

“Overwhelmed by Orgo” highlights a chronic teaching/learning issue but unfortunately offers little in the way of solutions.

One reason general chemistry courses have fared better than organic chemistry courses is due to the use of graded problem sets by many general chemistry instructors. Suitable problems, particularly quantitative ones, are provided in most textbooks. In four decades of teaching orgo, I have found that graded problems are also remarkably effective in fostering learning in organic chemistry. However, effective problems are more difficult to construct for a largely qualitative subject, and I have found it necessary to prepare my own, rather than rely on the pedestrian array available in most textbooks.

A major reason instructors do not give problem sets in orgo is tradition. Tradition acts as a straitjacket in choice of textbooks, with generation after generation of instructors choosing to teach exactly as they were taught, by the hoary functional group approach. I fear that traditionalist faculty, who typically had no problem learning orgo themselves, will continue to resist pedagogical reorganizations that might make learning easier for legions of orgo students.

Homer A. Smith Jr.
Suffolk, Va.

To read the bemoaning that nothing has changed for 50 years in organic chemistry textbooks coupled with the announcement that “we need … a different approach” was stunning. Instead of looking into a mirror, “hand-wringing” about organic textbooks took center stage at the symposium that C&EN reported on.

Textbook publishers are in the business of maximizing profits; educators are ethically responsible for providing their best grasp of teaching methods having the best evidence-based chance to maximize learning. To think that a discussion focused on texts is a serious consideration of whatever ills exist in organic instruction is nonsense.

I taught general and organic chemistry throughout my career. I worked at it. For organic, conscious decisions were made with colleagues about how to enhance student learning, and those efforts were critiqued. Text accoutrements were not important.

If any teacher supposes that having students sit and dangle their feet in the deep end of a swimming pool with texts stacked around them will teach them to swim, the educational enterprise is doomed.

Rita Hessley

Perhaps ACS’s Division of Organic Chemistry or Committee on Professional Training can create a committee to produce recommendations about what a new organic course should contain. We have to do something for the sake of our students, and now might be a good time to do it.

Jerry A. Hirsch
Longmeadow, Mass.


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