Friday, July 13, 2012

Why Take Organic Chemistry? Part 2

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

A Framework for Solving Complex Problems 

The title change that I mentioned in yesterday's post is likely to significantly alter my approach to instruction. For example, I will be more deliberate about teaching a framework to help my students navigate their way through problem solving. The framework I have in mind is sketched at the right (click on the graphic to enlarge). For now, just appreciate that the graphic highlights the attitudes and habits that students must develop in order to meet the challenges associated with solving many kinds of complex problems, including the ones encountered in organic chemistry (e.g., in organic chemistry, these are multi-step synthesis or multi-step mechanism problems).

Most of my students entered college trained to attack problems by memorization and plug-and-chug, i.e., algorithmic approaches. A major goal of college teaching, in my opinion, should be to reprogram this mindset. It seems important to make students aware - from the very outset - that the problems they'll encounter in organic chemistry class are different than what they're used to. Organic chemistry problems require solutions that are multi-step, multi-faceted and non-algorithmic. Nobody solves these problems by memorization alone. Nor are solutions found by applying a simple formula. The pathway to a solution - the main point to take away from the graphic - involves risk, failure and uncertainty. Getting used to taking chances, overcoming setbacks, and developing confidence to move through doubt, are the most valuable experiences the students in my class will encounter. Becoming comfortable with these experiences will help them confront the kinds of problems that are sure to fill their future professional careers.

Study the graphic now, and in tomorrow's post I'll give a more detailed description of this problem-solving framework.


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