photograph by John Goodman

Better Living Through Chemistry (Class)

About half of students who enter college with a science major in mind end up majoring in something else, observes Irving Epstein. The roadblock is often freshman chemistry class.

Most of us who teach chemistry are reluctant to acknowledge that very few of the students we teach are naturally attracted to chemistry the way we were. I think the proportion of students taking chemistry for chemistry’s sake has declined since i began teaching. many more students are taking it as a path to something else; premed students probably represent the largest group.

I remember the first time I went to my doctor and mentioned that I teach college chemistry. He cringed a little and said, “Oh, that almost kept me out of medical school.” Like my doctor, many students take their two years of required chemistry, breathe a sigh of relief, and then go on with their lives and don’t look back.

Students today also have many distractions to draw them off course—Facebook, Twitter, blogs. I suspect they tend to have less time to devote to their studies in high school, and when they get to college they don’t know how hard they’re going to have to work.

We need to reach out more to these students. We can’t expect them all to love the beauty of the subject for its own sake. We can, however, lure them in by showing them that chemistry is relevant to the things they’re really interested in—like life sciences, medicine, or environmental issues. Once we’ve gotten their attention and they recognize that it’s useful to understand how chemistry works, we can also convince them that it’s fun and interesting—maybe even worth tweeting about.

By integrating the course material with the world they live in, we can engage our students. One of my colleagues, for example, gives a candy bar to the student who brings in the “best” or “worst” chemistry news of the week, taken from a newspaper or magazine or the Web.

We need to develop experiments that let students discover things directly relevant to their lives, whether it’s medicine or making new materials or whatever their interests are. I don’t remember many experiments I did as an undergraduate, but the one that stands out most was when we extracted and analyzed cholesterol from a bunch of gallstones that our instructor had gotten from a hospital.

Of course, flashy experiments—especially those involving blowing something up—always grab attention. I do a demonstration I call “The Elephant’s Toothpaste.” You mix some liquids in a large graduated cylinder and there’s this enormous quantity of light, fluffy stuff that leaps out of the tube and pours onto the table and just keeps coming. We also make those Mentos/Diet Coke fountains made famous on YouTube—I warn the students not to sit in the first row. That’s the sort of thing they remember!

I’m not suggesting we “dumb down” the material. We still need to teach the same solid science. Students need to understand that they’re going to have to put in a lot of effort to succeed in the sciences, no matter how well prepared and how smart they are. Colleges can help provide that reality check. At Brandeis, I created a program to attract and retain disadvantaged students in science. One component of this Science Posse, as we call the program, is a two-week science “boot camp,” which introduces the students to campus the summer before their freshman semester. Our aim isn’t to teach science but to instill the discipline required to prepare for a career in science. The students learn from the start just how much work college will be. One lesson we have all learned from the success of the Posse program is the value of peer support groups. Our Science Posse students find that close support communities are key to their academic success. This is a lesson worth conveying to all our entering freshmen.

Has this approach succeeded in keeping more science students on their intended academic path? Possibly, but it’s too soon to know for sure. During the five years that I’ve been an HHMI professor, the percentage of students continuing on to their second year of chemistry has increased slightly, and the number of chemistry majors has gone up significantly. However, there could be other factors at play, such as the declining economy, which tends to draw students toward careers in science.

Fundamentally, we need to dispel the myth that we’re here to weed people out and that chemistry is just about memorization of facts rather than conceptual understanding. We shouldn’t focus only on the future scientists in our classrooms. We should engage all of our students and bring them up to a certain level of science literacy so that they will be scientifically informed citizens. It will require a change in mindset for chemistry faculty if we are going to get students into chemistry because they want to be, rather than because they have to be.

Irving Epstein is a chemistry professor at Brandeis University.

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Brandeis University
Biophysics, Neuroscience