New Chemistry from OCW

Woman in t-shirt standing in front of classroom chalkboard, holding up a water bottle.

Professor Catherine Drennan, wearing one of her many chemistry t-shirts, lectures in 5.111 on Acid-Base Equilibrium, posing the question: Is MIT Water Safe to Drink?

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Do you love chemistry? Doesn’t matter!

OCW has just published a new version of 5.111SC Principles of Chemical Science. Designed for students who don’t have a strong background in chemistry or may not have taken any chemistry before, Principles of Chemical Science fulfills the introductory chemistry requirement that all MIT students must meet in order to graduate. 

Advancing Step by Step

The OCW site is another of OCW’s Scholar courses structured to help independent learners gain mastery of foundational subjects. Accordingly, the course site is supersaturated with content. There are full video lectures, lecture notes, problem sets and solutions, and exams and solutions, plus a set of clicker questions posed to students during the lectures to keep them actively engaged with the content. The site also has links to Behind the Scenes at MIT, a collection of short videos that feature current and former MIT researchers explaining how a particular chemistry topic is essential to their research and to an inspiring real-world application.

The course is structured in linear fashion, progressing through five learning units: The Atom, Chemical Bonding and Structure, Thermodynamics and Chemical Equilibrium, Transition Metals and Oxidation-Reduction Reactions, and Chemical Kinetics.

The course materials are also collected in one handy place, the Resource Index, where they are organized by content type (video lectures, notes, problem sets, etc.), so you can quickly find specific things you might be looking for.

Engaging Students in Many Ways

The instructor of the course is Professor Catherine Drennan, who runs the Drennan Research and Education Lab under the auspices of MIT and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Professor Drennan has special sympathy for students who might be lacking in an abundance of enthusiasm for chemistry, because she was once one of them.

As an incoming student at Vassar College, she was interested in studying drama and biology. When told she would have to take chemistry, she groaned, “Please don’t make me take chemistry. I took it in high school. I can tell you it has absolutely nothing to do with biology. It’s deadly, dull. Don’t make me!”

But thanks to an inspiring teacher, she fell in love with chemistry in her first semester. She tells the whole story of her conversion to chemistry and her love of teaching in her Instructor Insights videos on her This Course at MIT page.

Naturally, she wants to kindle a passion for her favorite subject in her MIT students. She tells them, “I’m going to try to help you understand why chemistry is so amazing and how it can affect all sorts of different disciplines . .  . I’m going to teach you really all the basics that you need to know. If you can get those, you can go on and do all sorts of things with that chemistry.”

Tapping her experience on the stage, Professor Drennan does not simply give lectures. Rather, she creates dynamic, interactive classroom experiences that include demonstrations, clicker question competitions, rewards for correct student explanations, and lots of humor, even to the point of embarrassing herself.

But there is a method to her zaniness.

“It really helps people remember when you do something a little bit different,” she observes wryly.

Building Teams to Foster a Sense of Belonging

In her Instructor Insights, she reflects on the challenges of teaching a large class with 350 students. Success very much depends on the strength and dedication of her TAs, who are first-year graduate students, and she fosters a sense of group identity among them, so they support one other as a team.

She employs a similar approach in getting students to see their cohorts in recitation sections as teams by having them compete as a group for t-shirts, chemistry rulers, and other gag prizes in class competitions.

For Professor Drennan, teaching chemistry is much more than showing up to class and holding forth. It’s creating a mixture with high reactivity.

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