New tool from HCC professor helping ochem students

September 17, 2015

Don’t let Organic Chemistry hold you back

Organic Chemistry does not always stir up positive emotions.

Well, maybe sometimes … when it’s over

If you’re not sure what Organic Chemistry (or ochem) is, here’s a description of Heartland’s Organic Chemistry 1 class: This course is an introduction to the basic concepts of organic chemistry. Those fundamental concepts of organic chemistry included are the structure and bonding of, the acid-base principles of, and the standard (IUPAC) nomenclature of the various classes of hydrocarbons. Also, types of isomerism, substitution and elimination reactions, reaction mechanisms, and an introduction to various spectroscopic techniques are included. A three-hour lab each week will stress the synthesis, identification, and separation of organic compound

In other words, it’s tough.

Several students go through ochem at Heartland each year. It’s a requirement for concentrations such as nursing, biology and pre-med professions. On many college campuses across the globe, ochem is labeled a “weed out” class, which is a class designed to discourage students from exploring the subject area and ensures only serious students keep with it.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Nicola Burrmann is out to change that perception. “I can’t imagine not being able to do what I love because of one particular class. I will not be that person to keep someone from reaching their dream,” she said.

Finding the style that’s right for you

Burrmann is motivated to help students make it through ochem and in particular, stereochemistry, a chapter in ochem where students tend to struggle. Specifically, stereochemistry is concerned with the three-dimensional arrangement of atoms and molecules and how that arrangement can effect chemical reactions. “You have to draw pictures and it deals with a lot of weird symbolism,” explained Burrmann.

At one point, Burrmann’s sister was grappling with stereochemistry. Her problem: the professor and textbook were not explaining concepts in a way that clicked.

There are nine different methods for approaching stereochemistry. They all lead to the same result, but just like any subject, everyone has a different learning style. When the professor and textbook don’t match your preference, it inevitably brings frustration.

“She was very discouraged,” recalled Burrmann. “She told me the style she liked using and I figured out how to interpret what her professor was teaching in a way that made sense to her.”

It worked. Stereochemistry finally clicked with her sister, a moment any teacher (and student) yearns for. It’s also the moment Burrmann had a great idea.

Tackling stereochemistry for all

Burrmann figured her sister couldn’t be the only one who was struggling with a teacher/student learning style barrier. It was unrealistic to think teachers had time to teach nine approaches related to the subject and textbooks are limited by page numbers. So, Burrmann created a web-based, student-centered stereochemistry tutorial. The tutorial presents a background of stereochemistry terminology and all nine approaches. Students choose which method appeals to them and answer questions based on their preference.

Burrmann tested the tool with several hundred students where some did her tutorial, some went to lectures and some did neither. She learned that students who used the tool learned just as much as going to a professor and that students gravitated towards methods not commonly taught in the classroom.

The results made her wonder, “Should we revise how we teach?” Maybe, but in the meantime, Burrmann wants to get the word out. She has two articles published with the Journal of Chemical Education and has created a free, open-access website for anyone to use the stereochemistry tool.

“For those who find chemistry to be a challenge, I want them to know about this tool,” Burrmann said. It gives students another way to learn and there’s data to show that it works. Plus, it’s free.”

Written by: Becky Gropp