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August 26, 2002
Volume 80, Number 34
CENEAR 80 34 pp. 31-32
ISSN 0009-2347


Duke's chemistry department regroups after experimenting with an innovative first-year course


Now that orientation for freshman students at Duke University is over, the 1,600-some members of the class of 2006 are braving their first classes. Close to half are signed up for a course in chemistry.

By far the largest group, about 570, is taking Chem 21: "General Chemistry." The format of that introductory chemistry course--three lectures and one discussion/laboratory section per week--would be recognizable on almost any U.S. campus. So would the content: stoichiometry, atomic and molecular structure, and other basic concepts that will be familiar to most students from their high school chemistry classes.

That's not what chemistry department chairman John D. Simon had hoped for.

This time a year ago, Simon was kicking off an innovative, team-taught course aimed at immersing first-year students in the excitement and relevance of today's chemistry. But the experience proved rocky from the start. Confronted with negative reactions that went all the way to Duke's president, the department has opted this year to return to the stability of a traditional course.

The fall 2001 semester was the first time in four decades that Duke's general chemistry course was taught by anyone other than veteran professor James F. Bonk. The need to fill the void created when the respected Bonk stepped down presented challenges as well as opportunities.

"For the entire faculty, questions arose about what model we wanted to use," professor Linda B. McGown says. "Did we want to continue with just one person devoted to freshman chemistry or involve all the faculty? There was a strong feeling that freshman chemistry is the responsibility of the entire faculty, that we should all participate."

Simon pushed for a fresh approach. "We need to ask what we should be teaching in introductory chemistry," he says. "Why should students today be learning the same things that I learned in 1975? The science is not the same.



"I'M CONCERNED that people who take one year of chemistry and nothing more come away with an understanding of what today's chemistry is and the vital problems chemists address," Simon continues. He tells a story about students in an honors freshman chemistry class at the University of California, San Diego, where he was a professor before moving to Duke. "When asked what chemists do for a living, the students answered: 'Chemists measure pKas. They run titrations.' Why should we expect they'd think anything else, given the cookbook labs they'd taken?"

Simon laid plans to revamp the laboratory component of the introductory course well before Bonk relinquished his post. With the backing of his dean, Simon hired Misti A. Anderson to develop an inquiry-based lab curriculum. Anderson had been teaching at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics, the state's elite magnet high school.

Anderson researched what other universities were doing and designed a new series of labs. The innovations were tested on a small group of first-year students two years ago, then introduced to the full freshman course last fall. A success by all accounts, the inquiry-based labs are being run again this year.

Not so the lecture innovations introduced last fall.

For the lecture, Simon envisioned a "case-based" approach, somewhat like that used in law school. A series of faculty members would present material from the frontiers of chemistry to illustrate fundamental concepts.

"The idea was to talk about issues of current importance and themes from current chemical research, relating them to the underlying basic principles," he says. "We wanted to make the lectures enriching. Going in and just regurgitating what's in the text makes no sense."

The department designed a dual track for the 2001–02 school year. One section of approximately 300 students was taught in traditional fashion by a single professor. In the other section, Simon and five colleagues shared teaching responsibilities for the case-based approach. The plan was to test both groups at the end of each semester using parallel multiple-choice exams to assess how well each had mastered the basic material.

SIMON LED off the fall 2001 semester by inviting a discussion of the Kyoto protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "I was happy with the extent of the discussion," he says. "We asked what type of information you would want to know if you were to vote sensibly on whether the U.S. should ratify the treaty. We ran out of time before the students were ready to quit."

From there, the class spent about two weeks on combustion, taught by assistant professor Ross A. Widenhoefer, a car buff, who wove in principles of stoichiometry. Anderson followed with periodic trends; Simon came back to handle quantum mechanics. In Anderson's next time up, she used the Antarctic ozone hole to illuminate the gas laws. Then it was back to Widenhoefer, who dove into organic chemistry, leading the students through historical arguments about how it's known that carbon is tetrahedral and benzene's structure is delocalized. And so on.

By midsemester, a significant number of students in the case-based section were confused, frustrated, and unhappy.

The students' vociferous complaints reached beyond the chemistry department to the university administration. They complained that they felt like "guinea pigs." They were angry that they hadn't known in advance that their section was to be an experiment. They were uncomfortable with multiple teachers with different teaching and exam styles. The course lacked continuity, they said. Many felt they were having to work much harder than the students in the traditional section. Those who had just taken standard chemistry in high school, as opposed to an advanced placement course, seemed to feel especially disadvantaged.

Simon was not sympathetic. "They were only concerned about grades," he says. "Many of these kids have never gotten anything less than an A. They've never been challenged. They come to Duke expecting us to smooth the road for them between high school and medical school. They need to learn how to learn in all different environments. Instead, they are really angry that we've made them work hard."

But the students weren't the only ones finding fault with the course. Some graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) were critical, too. "The idea's definitely great," one tells C&EN, "but it was just too much for most of the students." The lack of continuity affected the TAs as well, who saw the lectures, labs, and recitations as fragmented and were for the most part not informed about what case material was being presented in lecture. "As TAs, we tried really hard to compensate," another says, "but I had no idea what to suggest to study beyond what was in the book." Notes a third: "You just feel awful when you don't know how to help."

At the end of the fall semester, so many students in the case-based section blew off the assessment test--which was not counted as part of the grade--that it turned out to be useless. "Some kids just filled in any answer as fast as they could, without even looking at the questions," one TA notes. Others scrawled expletives across their papers. The department didn't even try to administer an assessment test at the end of the spring semester.

The second semester had been much calmer, however--in part because when it was McGown's turn to teach, she abandoned the case-based approach, a decision Simon did not become aware of until the term was well under way. "Because the fall semester ended up less of a success than we hoped," she says, "and because I hadn't taught freshman chemistry since I was a grad student, I decided to spend my six weeks going pretty much by the book."

McGown was followed in lecturing by assistant professors Stephen L. Craig and Mark W. Grinstaff. Both adopted a sort of hybrid approach. "I tried to go through the standard material in the book and then bring in a research topic and talk about it," Grinstaff says.

"Why should students today be learning the same things that I learned in 1975? The science is not the same."

MEANWHILE, in the second semester of the traditional section, associate professor Richard MacPhail was confronting among the strongest students just the sort of apathy that Simon had designed the case-based course to avoid. "The real challenge is to reach the group who just reads the text, doesn't come to class, and still gets As," MacPhail says. "Would the case-studies approach reach them?"

MacPhail and many other faculty members wonder if it might be better to implement the case-based scenario with a smaller group of students, those who come to Duke with solid backgrounds in chemistry. Such an option will be something to ponder during the current school year.

This fall, MacPhail and a visiting professor are each teaching a section in traditional format. "We're going for a year of stability," Simon says, noting that Duke will not be revisiting the past, however. "We'll still bring applications and research topics into the freshman course in some way. But I want a year to think about what's happened and to find out what other people around the nation are doing."


James Bonk: A Hard Act To Follow

Until last year, introductory chemistry at Duke University had been known for decades as "Bonkistry." The affectionate nickname personified the extraordinary impact of professor James F. Bonk's 43 years of teaching the course to some 30,000 students.



Bonk's energy, enthusiasm, and dedication became part of Duke legend. So did the precision and clarity of his lectures. "He wrote everything meticulously on the board, point by point," says a student who took the course in the 2000–01 school year, the last time Bonk taught it. "He was always very clear and easy to understand."

While no longer teaching the first-year course, Bonk remains Duke's director of undergraduate studies in chemistry. He's designed a new course for nonscientists, called "Chemistry, Technology, and Society," which debuted last spring. Bonk is also working with the department's head librarian on a half-credit course for chemistry majors that will cover literature-searching techniques.

On stepping down from teaching general chemistry, Bonk suggested the course be restructured to include three lectures each week, plus a combined lab and recitation section. He had been lecturing just twice per week, which he felt offered barely enough time to cover the basics. "I envisioned that the added lecture would give an opportunity to make the material more interesting by covering applications of chemical principles to biology and materials science," he tells C&EN. He also advocated switching from a verification-based to an inquiry-based lab.

"Beyond that, I felt that I should not get involved in the detailed planning so that those who would actually be teaching the course would feel totally free to design it the best possible way to take advantage of their own teaching styles, new classroom technologies, et cetera," he says. "I felt strongly that they should be given the same freedom to develop the new course as I was given many years ago."


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Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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