“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
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