An Innovative Approach to Chemistry Education

Published on 09 March 2017

When presented with the opportunity to rethink St. Louis College of Pharmacy’s chemistry curriculum to better prepare their students, Ehren Bucholtz, Ph.D., associate professor of organic chemistry, and Benjamin Barth, Ph.D., assistant professor of organic chemistry, were eager to accept the challenge.

“We were encouraged to do new things, to make something unique, something to be proud of,” Bucholtz said. “This allowed us to focus on tailoring the curriculum to our students.”

With support from Kimberly Kilgore, Ph.D., dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Bucholtz and Barth set out to tackle some of the challenges that often hinder students’ success.

Improving the Curriculum

“Previously, we taught chemistry the same way they do at the majority of schools – one year of general chemistry followed by one year of organic chemistry,” Barth said. “The problem is, there is often a drastic difference between students in terms of preparedness and educational backgrounds when they enter our program. Some of our students have already taken two years of chemistry in high school, while others only have the opportunity to take one semester.”

Just as students have a wide variety of chemistry backgrounds, they also tend to have varied math backgrounds.

“It is very difficult for students to learn math and chemistry principles simultaneously,” Bucholtz noted. “What we have found is students are either very comfortable with the mathematics and not necessarily the chemistry principles the math is trying to explain, or they do not have an advanced math background coming into college chemistry, so they become overwhelmed by both the math and the chemistry.”

A Unique, Student-Focused Solution

After more than a year of analyzing existing coursework and researching alternative chemistry curricula, Bucholtz and Barth came up with an innovative solution that would strengthen the focus on key chemistry concepts throughout the program.

“We call this approach a threaded chemistry curriculum because we are essentially threading the big concepts through the entire chemistry program,” Bucholtz explained. “We worked backwards to say, ‘where do we want our students to be at the end of the curriculum, and what do we want them to be able to do?’ This helped us clarify the concepts that are most important to cover and refine the coursework to focus on biologically relevant topics that would be applicable to students in the future.”

One of their goals in structuring the new curriculum was to avoid thinking about the material as strictly general or organic chemistry. By emphasizing the connection points in the different areas of chemistry, students come away with a more complete understanding of how the concepts can be applied.

“In the threaded chemistry curriculum, we are able to cover an organic chemistry topic where it naturally ties into a general chemistry concept,” Barth said. “We introduce the topic the same way we would in general chemistry, but then extend that topic to go more in depth into organic chemistry. This way, students are able to see the connections in the material.”

Introducing new organic chemistry concepts earlier in the program helps to ensure a more level playing field for students with a wide range of chemistry and mathematics backgrounds.

“Having students learn concepts that are new to everyone is key. It creates a better learning community,” Bucholtz said.

“Restructuring the curriculum also allowed us to move the majority of the calculation-based chemistry to later in the program,” Barth said. “That way, students have already taken precalculus, calculus and statistics before they get to chemistry material that requires heavy mathematical calculation.”

Encouraging Results

Implemented in fall 2014, the threaded curriculum is still relatively new, but it is already showing positive effects. Bucholtz and Barth are starting to see encouraging test results that seem to indicate students are retaining the material more effectively. The new course structure also lends itself to faster intervention if a student is starting to fall behind, creating opportunities to connect students with academic support resources.

“Because we are getting into these organic chemistry topics earlier, we are able to recognize that a student is struggling right away, so they are able to get help sooner,” Barth added.

A Leader in Chemistry Instruction

The College is on the leading edge when it comes to this type of alternative curriculum, and other institutions are starting to take notice. Bucholtz recently hosted a symposium at a national meeting of chemistry educators on alternative pathways to curricular change where he received positive feedback from peers and fellow institutions.

“There are a handful of other institutions exploring similar methods of altering the curriculum, but the vast majority are still using the same general chemistry, organic chemistry approach,” Bucholtz said. “Educators are starting to realize that chemistry needs to change because not everyone is a chemistry major. What we have done is create a program that is a good fit for non-chemistry majors who need to have a strong background in chemistry. We are relating the material to skills for our students. Other institutions are going to learn from us and start asking, ‘what can we do to better meet our students’ needs?’ ”

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