Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why Take Organic Chemistry? Part 1

Risk, Failure and Uncertainty - An essay on the habits and attitudes beneficial to solving complex problems 

A Reevaluation of Instructional Objectives 

For the past 13 years I've taught a two-semester sequence of introductory organic chemistry to students at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The majority of my students are pre-professionals and most are not chemistry majors. While the format and means by which I deliver these courses has continually evolved, I have - until very recently - held steadfast to the idea that the organic chemistry content is the most important objective of my teaching. I was fully aware that the problem solving skills which students acquire are important too, but problem solving, as an intentional part of my instruction, took a secondary role to rigor in the subject matter. For the reasons explained in the upcoming posts, I've flipped the importance of these two instructional objectives. In fact, if I were to re-title the course today, I might call it, The Skills of Complex Problem Solving Learned Through the Study of Organic Chemistry.

The new title suggests that problem solving should supersede course content as the primary instructional objective. In this light, organic chemistry content is the means to acquire better problem solving skills. A course which develops the habits and attitudes beneficial to solving difficult problems is likely to produce greater value for the majority of the students enrolled in my course. After all, learning to solve problems, particularly the kind of complex, open-ended problems encountered in organic chemistry, has relevance and meaning to every future professional.

In tomorrow's post I'll illustrate a framework for solving complex problems.


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