Monday, October 8, 2012

To The Classroom!

A recent post at Chemiotics sparked some old, dimly remembered memories from my grad school days as a gen. chem. TA leading weekly discussion sections.

Now, general chemistry is, from what I can figure, is a slightly different beast than organic chemistry.  At the universities I attended, the class was also a requirement for physical science and engineering majors, and could make up a substantial fraction of the class given the strength of the engineering programs at my alma maters.  Organic chemistry tended to draw from a smaller student pool - outside of the legion of premeds, it was populated by those with chemistry & biological science majors, as well as the expected chemical/materials engineering students. 

Back to general chemistry - this situation leads to walking an incredibly tricky path so as to keep the material interesting, relevant, and not too off-putting to anyone in the audience.  In short, no one is entirely happy with things, but one might consider that a sign that everyone is getting what they need in the final accounting, although not necessarily what they'd prefer. I'll be a bit obnoxious as usual here and suggest that gen. chem. can be an opportunity to demonstrate chemistry's status as the central science to a diverse audience, if done well. 

Back to the premed issue, though - I think what perturbed many of us is the attitude that arises in a class with a significant premed population.  I won't belabor this point with various horror stories (as we all have them), but, for example, the majority of the "point lawyering" I experienced was from premedical students.  In all of those cases I can still remember/wrote down for the record, none of them involved an actual grade breakpoint (e.g., they were nowhere near the boundary that would have resulted in a different overall final grade).

Of course, perhaps what we need is a different model for medical education.   Or maybe not.  Perhaps what we need is to be reminded of the difference between education and training.  Learning about something that may not be transparently applicable to your post-university career plans is not the end of the world.  A radical idea, I know. 

Obligatory mention - congratulations to the new Nobel laureates

P.S. - If anyone wants to share their horror stories teaching undergraduates, please share in the comments. 

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