If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Undergraduate Education


July 9, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 25


Letters to the editor

General chemistry reform

In “Clearing the Way for Reform of General Chemistry Classes” (C&EN, May 24, 2021, page 20), Celia Henry Arnaud presents an ambition to reform what is taught in general chemistry and how it is presented. The article makes the startling discovery that general chemistry is a grainy collection of disjointed subjects that many students struggle to master. I am coming to the end of a 35-year career teaching chemistry at the college level. It may surprise more recent entrants to know that faculty have been aware of and exasperated by these issues for decades. The American Chemical Society is a major part of the problem. ACS has three organizations involved in curriculum: the Committee on Professional Training, the Chemical Education Division, and the Examinations Institute. The divided responsibility has resulted in an aggressive program of inaction, leaving standards for the field entirely in the hands of the textbook publishers. It is easy to talk of major reform, but for most institutions, the de facto standard cannot be evaded. These institutions’ offerings are part of a network of high schools and 2- and 4-year college programs that must accept one another’s credit. Their work must be evaluated and standardized with ACS examinations, and in some cases the ETS Major Field Tests. Only ACS can initiate a new standard that would apply simultaneously to multiple stakeholders. First, the three ACS organizations involved must be fully integrated into a coherent system to set and oversee the educational standards of the profession. General chemistry is long overdue for a redefinition, but it is upon ACS to overcome its timidity, step up, and make something happen.

Roger Barth
West Chester, Pennsylvania

In “Clearing the Way for Reform of General Chemistry Classes” there is this quote: “ ‘The vast majority of the chemistry curricula that exist across the country for gen chem are basically the same as this 1957-era arrangement a couple of p-chemists came up with,’ says Ryan Stowe, also a chemistry professor at UW–Madison who focuses on curricular reforms in chemistry. He’s referring to a textbook by physical chemists Michell J. Sienko and Robert A. Plane.”

First, some corrections: Bob Plane was an inorganic chemist, a PhD with Henry Taube. Plane wrote a textbook of inorganic chemistry in 1965. Mike Sienko is generally known as a solid-state chemist but began somewhere between physical and inorganic chemistry. He worked at the University of California, Berkeley, with Wendell Mitchell Latimer and Ermon Dwight Eastman in a Manhattan Project–related study on the electromotive force of cells with metal–metal chloride couples in fused salt electrolytes. Both were superb teachers.

The characterization of the texts Dr. Stowe doesn’t like is pejorative. In this, he has succumbed to the ancient rhetorical strategy beloved by politicians—before you tell the world of the good new things you have done or will do, you say bad things about the old. Too bad. In fact, textbooks have their time. Thousands of very good chemists, including Dr. Stowe’s mentors, and theirs, learned chemistry very well, and were attracted to chemistry, from the Sienko and Plane texts. There is perennial dissatisfaction with how chemistry is perceived and taught; this is as it should be—there always is room for improvement. But there is no evidence I know that we suffered from the Sienko and Plane presentation. If you have new ideas and reasons they work well, just tell us what they are—no need to malign what went before.

Keep teaching!

Roald Hoffmann (Ithaca, New York) and Gary Katz (Cabot, Vermont)

I would like to apologize for my remarks quoted in “Clearing the Way for Reform of General Chemistry Classes.” In this article, I said, “The vast majority of the chemistry curricula that exist across the country for gen chem are basically the same as this 1957-era arrangement a couple of p-chemists came up with.” This remark acted to (1) dismiss the seminal contributions made by Sienko and Plane in integrating chemical theory into what were previously largely descriptive textbooks and (2) mischaracterize the expertise of Bob Plane and Mike Sienko, who specialized in inorganic and solid-state chemistry, respectively. I regret any offense these comments might have caused.

A great deal of modern chemistry education work, including work undertaken in my group, is dedicated to supporting students in connecting physical chemistry ideas to how and why chemical phenomena happen. One cannot hope to understand why evaporation of sweat cools the body or why some (but not all) surgical sutures dissolve, without leaning heavily on the powerful explanatory ideas refined by physical chemists over many decades. In weaving bonding and energy ideas into a coherent narrative, Sienko and Plane brought about a paradigm shift in how chemistry was taught: they enabled students to explain why processes happened, not simply describe how. Many modern science education reform efforts, including the Next Generation Science Standards, explicitly recognize the tremendous predictive and explanatory power of big ideas such as matter and its interactions, motion and stability, and energy.

I would like to thank Roald Hoffmann and Gary Katz for dialogue on chemistry learning and learning environments and for reminding me of the good work chemistry educators such as Sienko and Plane have done in the past. I look forward to continued conversations with educators in our community on how we can effectively support all learners in “doing chemistry.”

Ryan Stowe
Madison, Wisconsin



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.