Cultural Revision of Organic Chemistry Laboratory

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                                                     Stephanie Smith

                                                     Anne Dalke

                                                     Introduction to Critical Feminist Studies

                                                     Paper # 3

                                                     December 8, 2008

 

           

                        Cultural Revision of Organic Chemistry Laboratory

As a pre-med student I have come to realize that the structure of the science courses, particularly general chemistry and organic chemistry, are very rigorous and time-consuming.  My personal ambition, educational background, and learning style, have all contributed to how I feel about the rigor, structure, and culture that embodies academics, especially the sciences, at Bryn Mawr College.

            In high school, I took science classes, such as general chemistry, physics, and biology.  I also took AP Biology as a senior in high school.  Although I did not do spectacular, but rather more along the lines of average in most of these classes, I did well in general chemistry in high school.  On the other hand, I did not do well in AP Biology. 

            As a freshman at Bryn Mawr College, I struggled through general chemistry, although I had done well in high school.  I believe this was because in high school, the culture was to memorize under the disguise of learning.  In other words, I was not learning how to think about problems and solve them, but instead I was focused on the answer, rather than how to arrive at the answer.  In fact, sadly, this was the situation in other classes as well, such as in history, where memorizing dates of battles and names of forts took precedence over learning about political and social movements that laid foundations for the present government of our country and world.  As opposed to the memorization and regurgitation of facts and information that was a part of the culture of my high school education, as I have matured, my mind has become more receptive to knowledge and learning.

            In high school, I did not find physics intriguing or interesting, but rather a foreign language I would never learn to master.  It was another subject that I was required to take and had to do well in.  Miraculously, I did well.  However, as a junior in college taking physics, although I am only taking it to fulfill pre-med requirements, I get the big picture, no matter how hazy it seems.  But although my mind is more receptive to learning, it is very difficult to rid it of the “plug-without-the-chug” mentality, which is why organic chemistry presents such a challenge, as general chemistry did.            

I appreciate organic chemistry, more than I did general chemistry, largely in part to maturity.  However, such appreciation in no way undermines my struggle with this very difficult subject.  Although I feel insecure and have my doubts, I know that I am not the only student who struggles with organic chemistry and whose secondary educational background in the sciences is similar to mine.  There are many opportunities for students who are struggling in organic chemistry, or any other science, to seek help.

            Most science courses are accompanied by peer-led instruction or PLI sessions, which are led by students who have taken and done well in a particular course.  Theoretically, students are supposed to work on problems in groups and help each other.  PLI sessions are helpful because not only is the material reinforced from lecture, but also sometimes the material is explained in a way so that students are better able to understand it.  I have attended PLI sessions for all of the science courses that I have taken throughout my time at Bryn Mawr.  However, my attendance waned, and eventually stopped.  Although most, and, if not, the worksheets are helpful, I have stopped attending PLI sessions because I need to digest the material on my own, which is where the difficulty lies.  If I have not digested the material on my own, then attending PLI sessions are not only ineffective, but also frustrating.  I feel exactly the same in regards to office hours that professors hold, which I have sparingly attended throughout my time at Bryn Mawr College as well.  In addition to PLI sessions and office hours, study groups have also been recommended.

            I think forming a study group is a smart and great idea.  However, throughout my education, I never formed study groups and never did homework in groups.  Although I participated in a lot of educational after school programs as a child and adolescent, and a decent amount of time was set aside for homework, other children and I worked on our homework individually as we sat alongside one another and raised our hands when we needed help.  In high school, my friends and I went home after school and worked on our homework individually.  Therefore, as a junior in college, I am conditioned to working independently on homework and problems.  The only times I have worked with other Bryn Mawr students in groups were when we were assigned or reluctantly chose each other to work on course assignments or projects.  In addition to being used to studying and working independently in regards to academics, I am insecure as to how much I would be able to contribute if I were to study with another person or as a part of a group.  Moreover, it is my assumption that the majority of Bryn Mawr undergraduate students works and studies independently, especially those taking science courses.

 I have observed the Bryn Mawr post-baccalaureate pre-med students working and studying in groups countless times while in the science library.  However, I have rarely observed Bryn Mawr undergraduate students working and studying in groups.  Although Bryn Mawr’s social honor code says that students are not to discuss their grades in order to encourage competition with oneself, rather than with each other, I believe that competition is partly the reason why the majority of Bryn Mawr undergraduate students works and studies independently.

            At first, I really did not consider Bryn Mawr as a noticeable competitive environment because of the social honor code, for which I am grateful.  In my high school, grades and other marks of academic excellence were discussed and particular students who excelled academically were praised publicly.  Although one might argue that Bryn Mawr College has its own marks of distinction in academic excellence, such as the selection of fellows by the college and the select seniors who will graduate with honors, personally, Bryn Mawr’s competitive environment does not compare to that of my high school.  Therefore, I am encouraged to be in competition more with myself, than with others at Bryn Mawr, all the while knowing that I will be competing more with others once I leave Bryn Mawr.  Although competition cannot be rid of since it is a part of life, I do feel that a curricular revision of organic chemistry would help students achieve to the best of their abilities, particularly those who struggle with chemistry.

            Organic chemistry lecture is held three times a week for one hour.  In addition to lecture, there is laboratory, which is held once a week for four hours and a half, and a recitation session held once a week for an hour.  Organic chemistry is not only rigorous, but also time-consuming when one takes into consideration the time spent outside lecture, laboratory, and recitation studying and writing laboratory reports.  Thus, time management and good study habits are very important for doing well in organic chemistry.  However, equally important to time management and good study habits, is the consideration and revision of the culture and structure of the organic chemistry laboratory.

            Professors, laboratory instructors, and laboratory teaching assistants (TAs) should take into consideration that students come from diverse educational backgrounds.  The general culture of academia, especially that of science departments, is to “recruit and hail” students who fairly easily excel academically, rather than to help students who struggle hone their skills.  I have particularly witnessed this cultural practice in the organic chemistry laboratory.  Unlike in the classroom, where performance on exams is kept confidential between the student and the professor, performance in carrying out laboratory experiments and the evaluation of such performance is visible. 

            A revision of organic chemistry lecture and, specifically, laboratory would entail greater insight into and consciousness of the diversity of educational backgrounds of students in chemistry.  At the beginning of the semester, there should be at least one and at the most two optional preparatory sessions for laboratory.  The goals of these sessions would be (1) to physically give students a brief and informative run through of the various machines and technology used in laboratory so that they will be familiar with them during later experimentation, rather than the first introduction to such machines and technology be the experimental procedure; and (2) to physically demonstrate the proper set up of experimental apparatuses.  In addition to preparatory sessions held at the beginning of the semester, organic chemistry laboratory teaching assistants (TAs) should outline the main points and notes that they would like students to observe in regards to the experimental procedure and setup on dry erase boards and should draw students’ collective attention to such points, rather than assume that all students work at the same pace. 

            Criteria for grading in organic chemistry laboratory should be set and agreed upon by TAs and instructors.  Instructors should review TAs’ grading of laboratory reports to ensure that students are graded fairly.  Sometimes TAs grade harder than instructors and other TAs, which is not only unfair, but inconsistent in regards to feedback on students’ performance and progress.   

            The purpose of organic chemistry laboratory is to reinforce what students learn in lecture through hands-on experimentation.  However, instructors and TAs should be mindful that students have diverse educational backgrounds and should be dedicated to helping students who struggle, rather than simply “hailing and recruiting” students who excel rather easily.

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

Going beyond "hailing and recruiting"

Stephanie--

You have a fellow traveler into the realms of feminist reconsiderations of the Chemistry curriculum; see Rethinking the Haverford College Chemistry Department: Curriculum and Teaching Methods. I also see echoes of your project in Feminism in the Math Classroom and in The Swarthmore Engineering Department Examined Under a "Feminist" Educational Lens. The latter paper is particularly striking in its juxtaposition of McIntosh's Phases 1 and 5: the sharp contrast of a student-unfriendly field, with the collaborative work that students do to manage their work in such an environment. That pairing suggests a reactionary relationship, like the way in which "objectivity" and "subjectivity" operate as correctives/foils/opposing definitions to one another in the history of science, more generally conceived: that is, students who feel intimidated by a hostile environment bond together to combate their sense of oppression.

This gets me to my major question for you: in what ways do the study aids you propose--preparatory sesssions, shared grading standards, etc--actually keep a delibilitating structure in play? Might there be something deep about the "hailing and recruiting" project @ work in organic chemistry that should be examined--and revised? Another paper that digs into these questions--really re-thinking what we are doing in education from elementary school on up--is Learning From My Experiences: A New Model for Elementary Education. Could you take a leaf from that book, and imagine a more extensive overhaul than the rather patchwork, piecemeal one you offer here? Start with some of the bigger questions: why do students take organic chemistry? What do they need to learn, for what purposes, and how? What is the project, overall, about?

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