Redesigned Chemistry Course Influencing Future of STEM Education
UA faculty are rethinking and revising the way they teach chemistry, an important foundational course for nurses, doctors, nutritionists, geologists, pharmacists and others.

University Relations - Communications
June 9, 2014

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Fundamentally, chemistry is about the investigation of how matter interacts with energy and other types of matter on the atomic and molecular levels. Chemists are helping find answers to questions around why non-living compounds, like water, can create co
Fundamentally, chemistry is about the investigation of how matter interacts with energy and other types of matter on the atomic and molecular levels. Chemists are helping find answers to questions around why non-living compounds, like water, can create complex life forms, why antihistamines help allergy suffers and how to perfectly boil an egg – the very real-life applications that UA chemists are starting to bring to class.

Among college students, introductory and general chemistry are known as rote memory courses – math-heavy, complicated classes demanding formula and fact memorization with little interactivity. 

Not any more at the University of Arizona. Backed by funding from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust through the Association of American Universities' STEM Undergraduate Education Initiative, UA faculty chemists have drastically shifted how they are teaching this core STEM curriculum.

The UA was one of only eight institutions in the nation selected under this AAU nationwide initiative to greatly enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – education with a goal of retaining students in order to train them in these disciplines and, thus, expanding the workforce in these critical areas. The AAU grant led to the creation of the University’s AAU STEM Project, an interdisciplinary effort to significantly expand STEM-related collaborations, curricula and funding opportunities at the UA.

Leading the redesign of the foundational chemistry courses are John Pollard, UA's director of general chemistry and Vicente A. Talanquer, a chemistry and biochemistry professor.

About 4,000 students participated in a pilot of the course called "Chemical Thinking" and, according to Pollard and Talanquer, students not only report being more satisfied with the course material than those in traditional chemistry classes, but retain more information and perform better after moving on to the more advanced organic chemistry. "Chemical Thinking" will be offered more broadly this fall.

The course is structured to focus more on group-based discussions, problem solving activities and forms of active engagement. Little time is allotted for lecture. In fact, during the hour-long class, Pollard spends less than 10 minutes at the front of the room lecturing.

"That number, by the way, is based on the research of a person's attention span. So we really rely on what we've learned about the attention span of the common student," Pollard said.

In developing the course with Talanquer, Pollard said both were also attentive to how students perceive of their own learning and the ways in which knowledge is not isolated, but associative.

With the new approach, students aren't simply memorizing formulas and running drills. They might instead evaluate carbon dioxide levels in cities, explore how molecules interact in the Earth during the fracking process, investigate how sports supplements interact in the body, or figure out why biodiesel fuels are more beneficial than traditional fuels.

UA freshman Sarah Hefferan was so impressed with the course that she offered to be a preceptor in the fall and is planning to change her major from engineering to chemistry. Before "Chemical Thinking," she never considered chemistry in the way that she does now – as a pathway to an advanced degree.

"I see a significant difference in my ability to retain the information," Hefferan said. "We are really encouraged to talk about our knowledge with our peers and grow our knowledge together. We had to understand the concepts, not just the numbers. That really reinforces the material."

Solomon Elias was especially attracted to Pollard's class because of its emphasis on real-world problems and practical solutions. After taking the course as a freshman, he too decided to become a preceptor.

"As a preceptor, I strive to explain concepts in many different ways to cater to individual students' learning styles," continued Elias. "Not only does this help the students learn the concepts, but I begin to think of the concepts in different ways myself, which further strengthens my own understanding."

That's just the spark Pollard and Talanquer are seeking with this innovative teaching approach.

"The hope is that a student is shown (through this class) how chemistry is a powerful way of thinking about very relevant things in our world," Pollard said. "And, of course, we hope to build lasting ideas that will translate to their other classes, because chemistry is everywhere."

Extra info

To learn more about the course, watch "Teaching Students How to Think."


Resources for the media

John Pollard

UA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry 



Roger L. Miesfeld

UA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry