Indiana State University Department of Chemistry

Chemical Education

Cross-Course Collaboration in the Chemistry Curriculum

It is sometimes perceived that the disciplines of chemistry (analytical, organic, inorganic, physical and biological) are disjoined and do not impact one another.   It is unfortunate, yet not entirely rare to hear a chemist denigrate or disparage divisions outside his/her own, let alone other scientific disciplines.  Such tribalistic attitudes may be borne of the perception that one group is independent of another and fostered by a culture of compartmentalization of disciplinary content (this is not unique to chemistry either).  Undergraduate chemistry is often taught along clear disciplinary boundaries in self-contained units that don't necessarily emphasize the interconnectedness of the divisions.  This has lessened in recent years with the emphasis that has been placed on multidisciplinary research for answering the larger questions in science and technology.  However, interdisciplinary and interdivisional interactions within chemistry (and all science) need to find their way into the curriculum.  No division or discipline is entirely independent of any other, whether in chemistry or any other science.  


In reality, the relationship between the disciplines is fully multimodal.  Every division uses techniques and tools borrowed from other divisions in chemistry and from other disciplines altogether (e.g. physics, biology). For a scientist, getting too hung up on how one defines himself/herself is not particularly beneficial for the individual or the practice.  In short, virtually no one is a pure scientist of any kind. Thus, the teaching of science must become more interdisciplinary, particularly at the undergraduate level, where the basic concepts are taught and learned.  We have embarked on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to provide collaborative experiences to chemistry students in our department.  We hope to improve the teaching of chemistry through fostering a deeper understanding of not only the content, but the interactions between disciplines.  In this way, we also hope to improve student engagement, a necessary criterion for learning.

In this project, we look to promote interaction between chemistry students across divisional lines to accomplish two objectives. This study focuses on four laboratory courses; sophomore organic, advanced organic, inorganic and physical chemistry.  Each cohort of students exchanges material or data/interpretation with another group.  The initial focus group is the sophomore organic, as it is the first disciplinary course taken by the undergraduate chemistry major and lays the foundations for how one interacts with other disciplines.


The sophomore organic students interact with two other course groups.  First, they provide a labeled compound to the physical chemistry group who then conduct a kinetics experiment to determine the isotope effect in a particular reaction and determine if the effect is primary or secondary based on the magnitude of the effect.  These students then report their results to the organic students.  Similar exchanges occur between the sophomore organic students and the inorganic students who recieve limonene, a diene obtained from orange peels.  The inorganic students conduct a regioselective reduction of the molecule using a modified hydrogenation catalyst which they synthesize and likewise report the results of their experiment to the organic students. The organic students get a sense that their compound is useful for something other than sitting in  a vial until the professor disposes of it.  They also share a responsibility for the outcome of the subsequent experiment based on the quality of the material they provide.  The students in the other courses get an appreciation for where their compounds come from and in completion of the cycle, the sophomore organic donors ultimately become the recipients of material from subsequent cohorts and provide results back to them.  In this way, each student progressing through the curriculum gets to see both sides of the project and hopefully a full appreciation of how the disciplines work together bringing different expertise to bear on a chemical problem.

Visualization Tools for Chemistry Learning

Learning many chemistry concepts is a significantly visual process, particularly in structural contexts.  Organic and other chemists use models to visualize how atoms are assembled into molecules, including bond lengths and angles.  Often, such models are of the plastic ball-and-stick variety and these models can be good for teaching concepts such as bond distances and angles.  Rotation of bonds can be used to show conformational effects.  However, such models connected by physical plastic connectors fail to convey the electrostatic and dynamic effects that lead to successful bonding.  Magnetic models, recently introduced by manufacturers such as Indigo Instruments who market the well-known molymod line of model kits may be useful in visualizing such electrostatic interactions through magnetism as a surrogate.  Magnets are polarized north and south, providing a complementarity analgous to the positive and negative interactions of atoms based on charge, whether covalent, ionic or polar.