Reinventing the Intermediate Organic Chemistry Laboratory

How does one go about updating a curricular classic? And what role do writing assignments play? These are the questions we asked Assistant Professor Helen Blackwell, recent winner of a prestigious university teaching award. We were interested in how she and colleagues reinvented the Intermediate Organic Chemistry Laboratory (Chemistry 346). This course, an upper-level undergraduate elective, has been one of the Chemistry Department’s staple undergraduate courses for decades. The goal of the reinvented course? To provide advanced training in chemistry research to undergraduates.

To reach this goal, the new version of the course incorporates the very latest lab techniques in a field that is evolving rapidly. In addition, students learn how to write about their findings much like professional researchers. As Professor Blackwell puts it, “There are times when 50% of a chemistry researcher’s job is dedicated to writing. Thus, learning how to write effectively is crucial.”

Just as writing is an important professional activity, Blackwell reports that it also helps students learn. “If you don’t understand a concept well, it’s hard to write about it,” she points out. “The process of writing forces you to understand what you are doing and understand it in a broader context. For a student and a teacher, what could be better than that?”

Thus a new, improved version of Chemistry 346 was born. And now, to the delight of many chemistry students, it also fulfills the University’s Communication-B requirement.

 

The Nuts and Bolts
This new version of Chem 346 includes a number of opportunities for students to hone their communication skills. In the first half of the semester, students write three lab reports based on experiments connected to Nobel-prize-winning chemistry research in various areas. For example, students conduct labs on the synthesis of antibiotics (Paul Ehrlich, Nobel 1908), natural products isolation and total synthesis (George Wittig, Nobel 1979), and the development of asymmetric chemical reactions (Sharpless, Knowles, and Noyori, Nobel 2001).

In the second half of the semester, students are assigned to graduate research groups in the Chemistry Department and work with graduate-student and post-doctoral mentors on ongoing projects. From these projects, students write up a two-page “extended abstract” including the following sections: introduction, results, graphic representation of findings, significance, and annotated bibliography. This format is modeled after abstract formats required by certain scientific journals.

Finally, students present their research results in a poster format during a class poster session during the last week of the course. The poster session allows students to practice scientific presentation skills.

 

In order to teach scientific writing, Professor Blackwell follows some of the latest theories in writing-across-the-curriculum research. In accordance with these theories, she uses four main strategies.

1. Repeating a genre several times over the semester. Students write three lab reports over the course of the semester. While the experiments that students report about differ, the genre remains constant. This consistency gives students a chance to practice and improve from one assignment to the next.

2. Incorporating peer review. Blackwell reports that peer review has been one of the most popular aspects of this course and has helped students’ writing improve significantly. She models the in-class peer-review process on the kind of peer review conducted by scientific journals. At the outset, students focus primarily on the science during the review process. As students improve on the science of their lab reports, their arguments become more cogent, which helps improve their writing. While Blackwell requires peer review only for the first lab report, many students find it so useful that they voluntarily participate in peer review for the remainder of the semester.

3.Teaching about writing in class. Blackwell has found a number of different ways to give students direct instruction about the kind of writing she wants them to produce.

For example, one of the first things students do in the course is to read a “short guide to scientific writing,” which Blackwell and her colleagues have put together. This guide addresses issues such as engaging readers, learning the conventions of scientific writing, and building an argument.

Soon afterward, Blackwell devotes a lecture to dissecting a badly written lab report. This activity helps students to understand more precisely what belongs (and what doesn’t!) in this form of writing.

Finally, when students write extended scientific abstracts based on their original experiments, they are provided with a whole book of sample scientific abstracts. This variety of sample abstracts lets students immerse themselves in the genre. They end up better understanding what is expected of a scientific abstract and how to write a successful one themselves.

4. Conducting regular formative assessments. Blackwell and colleagues elicited feedback from students throughout the course using a free online assessment model called SALG, Student Assessment of Learning Gains. They were able to elicit ongoing feedback about how various aspects of the course were working (peer review, for example). This feedback allowed them to modify the course to meet student needs as the semester progressed—as opposed to waiting to learn what students thought only after the semester had already ended. How did they motivate students to take these assessments seriously? They made completion of the online surveys worth 5% of students’ grades.

What, overall, did such assessment show? That 100% of students found their instruction in scientific writing valuable. Through their hard work and ingenuity, chemistry faculty have created a model for a first-rate writing-intensive, experimental science course.