Chem 5 is a tough rite of passage for chemistry and biology majors at Dartmouth College. With a reputation as one of the most challenging courses on campus, its focus on quantitative thinking, numerical problem solving, and abstract concepts in chemistry has driven many students to switch majors.
Faculty from both departments realized they were losing potential science majors at an alarming rate due, in part, to students' bad experiences in Chem 5, an introductory chemistry course, and in introductory biology courses. Much of the new $800,000 grant will help faculty redesign an introductory course in each department that hopefully will better prepare students for upper-level courses and improve retention.
Chemistry and biology majors, for instance, will soon have an alternative to Chem 5. Dartmouth faculty Roger Sloboda and Jon Kull envision a course that integrates the quantitative and mathematical aspects of chemistry into the study of biological processes, such as those that would be presented in an introductory cell biology course.
“We’ll try to explain chemistry principles by using real-life cell biology applications that students can understand from their own cell physiology,” says Sloboda, the Ira Allen Eastman Professor of Biological Sciences and the HHMI program director. Sloboda plans to teach acid/base chemistry by instructing students about the stomach’s acidic environment, which helps to break down and digest foods. He will also discuss stomach epithelial cells and the 2005 Nobel Prize–winning research on Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that infects the stomach and plays a causative role in ulcers and gastritis.
Sloboda and Kull, an associate professor of chemistry, are offering their curriculum as a single course covering two trimesters—instead of teaching chemistry one trimester and biology the next. Students will be required to watch lectures via podcast before class. Time in class will be for interaction—problem sets, small group discussions, and review. They hope the revamped course will ignite students’ passion for science, rather than scaring students away.
But Chem 5 won’t go away for at least three years. It will be offered for students who prefer the “old school” approach to learning chemistry, giving faculty the opportunity to monitor grade and drop-out data for both classes to see if the new approach improves retention of potential biology and chemistry majors.