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Chemistry synthesizes radical overhaul of undergraduate curriculum

Emory is one of the first major research universities to completely overhaul how it teaches chemistry, from introductory courses to capstone senior seminars. The new curriculum, called Chemistry Unbound, is supported by a $1.2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

For the science dedicated to studying how properties interact and change, chemistry has been static for decades in how it is taught.

That changes this fall, as Emory College of Arts & Sciences and Oxford College position themselves as leaders in teaching undergraduates the “central science” that links biology, physics and more with a revamp of the entire undergraduate chemistry curriculum.

While some universities have changed individual classes, Emory is one of the first major research universities to completely overhaul how it teaches chemistry, from introductory courses to capstone senior seminars

Gone are the yearlong studies of subareas such as organic and inorganic chemistry. In their place are four intradisciplinary courses that show students from day one how they all fit together.

This new program, called Chemistry Unbound, will provide a more cohesive grounding for the many students who take the core of chemistry into other fields. More than 900 Emory students take two years of classes at the Atlanta and Oxford campuses, but a smaller subset are chemistry majors. A fifth new core course aimed exclusively at majors will dive deep into the chemistry of light and matter.

Upper-level classes take advantage of students' broad knowledge in chemistry by focusing on cutting-edge subject areas, for instance, natural product synthesis and drug discovery, astrochemistry and spectroscopy, or chemical and synthetic biology. Faculty already see those sorts of connections, says Chemistry Department Chair Stefan Lutz, and are eager to begin weaving them into courses.

“Rather than learning each subdiscipline as individual pillars of chemistry, our students will learn to integrate those pillars into a coherent building,” Lutz says. “Having that big-picture understanding makes chemistry more accessible and highlights the central role of chemistry across the physical and life sciences.”

The majority of the chemistry department’s faculty, along with counterparts at Oxford such as associate professor of chemistry Nichole Powell, worked on the reimagined curriculum, with support from a $1.2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in 2014. HHMI was excited to fund a new look at chemistry that would branch out from technical visions of chemistry and take advantage of Emory’s excellence in the liberal arts.

Doug Mulford, a senior chemistry lecturer and director of undergraduate studies for Emory’s chemistry department, said the work meant more than ditching the old approach of teaching a slice of chemistry every year without explicitly teaching students how it all worked together.

Instead of focusing on drilling formulas and factual knowledge in the first years, faculty have plotted courses that blend those formulas with organic and other areas of chemistry, biology and other fields. Together, faculty now explain why molecules interact with each other, first in “Structure and Properties” during fall term and then in “Introduction to Reactivity” in the spring term. 

“The idea is that you're not just learning the facts, but also learning the chemistry behind why the world works,” Mulford says. “You’re also seeing how to construct a scientific claim and use evidence and reason to explain your argument. That level of critical thinking transcends chemistry.”

Holistic approach to chemistry

Heady stuff, or so some first-years students thought last fall when they participated in a pilot program for the new curriculum. While some of the pilot program students opted in, others only discovered what they were in for when they read the syllabus.

Who wouldn’t freak out at getting a heavy dose of organic chemistry, traditionally a sophomore course, when they were expecting general chemistry?

But understanding how atoms speak to each other helped David Kulp, now a sophomore, understand other courses and deepen his interest in studying neurobiology and bioethics.

Even Carli Kovel, a senior chemistry major who served as a mentor during the pilot (but studied under the old curriculum), saw new connections just by sitting in on the courses.

“This curriculum introduces an easier way for chemistry students to not only draw parallels between different disciplines of chemistry, but also approach all subjects in a holistic manner,” Kovel says.

That was true for Ashley Diaz, who was also in the pilot. Combining more than one silo of chemistry opened her up to it so much that she added it to her neuroscience and behavioral biology major.

“I heard chemistry was so difficult, but having gone through this new way, I can’t imagine learning it any other way,” says Diaz, now a sophomore. Currently, she is weighing whether to move from an NBB research lab into a chemistry lab.

“Rather that memorizing that something is an acid, you get to see how an acid reacts,” Diaz adds. “Then you can predict what will happen with another acid. It’s a great way to build up your confidence in chemistry, and you really get to see why something matters.”

Hearing that students grasp the context, and see how chemistry’s subareas work together and with other disciplines, is music to Tracy McGill’s ears.

A senior chemistry lecturer, McGill worked closely with several colleagues in chemistry as well as two postdoctoral to spearhead the pilot program on the new curriculum. Nine of the students in the pilot declared chemistry majors at the end of their first year, far more than the “zero to one” chemistry majors per year under the former program.

This year, the piloted course, CHEM 150: Structure and Properties, expands to replace all sections of the old “Gen Chem” course. McGill will again teach the class on the Atlanta campus, and she is cautiously hopeful that she will again see more students drawn to chemistry.

 “Many of our students are interested in the health sciences and the life sciences, so those connections are key,” McGill says.  “My real hope is that our undergraduates, whatever their major, find that chemistry is not off-putting but truly an appealing course of study for everyone.”

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