Organic Chemistry: Friend or Foe? An Organic Chemistry Special Investigation

Neal A. Yakelis, Pacific Lutheran University

Summary

In this research poster-project assignment, second semester organic chemistry students are asked to work in teams to find a claim in the media relating to the impact of an organic compound (or class of organic compounds) on the environment and its inhabitants. Their chosen compound should have an effect on the sustainability of plant or animal life, or, in particular, the sustainability of human health. After choosing their topics, students are asked to capture claims in popular literature, periodicals, consumer products, or on websites. The teams then combine the primary research literature for the data that exist to support or refute their claims. Their findings are summarized on a poster on which they will come to a conclusion of their own based on the evidence they find. The results are then shared in a class poster session discussion. This assignment challenges students to use systems thinking to assess the impact of organic compounds and materials on the environment and human health.

Learning Goals

Students taking organic chemistry at the college level are most often seeking a degree in chemistry, biology, or engineering. Many eventually hope to pursue a career in the health or life sciences. For some of these students, this will be the last chemistry course that they take, and for most, the last organic chemistry course that they will have for the rest of their lives. Organic chemistry challenges students to see their world through a new lens: a window on how reactions take place based on their molecular structure. To this end, chemists use a variety of tools to probe and understand the natural world at a molecular level. In the laboratory, we emphasize instrumentation (IR spectroscopy, NMR spectroscopy, gas chromatography, etc.) as a primary source of data. But students must also be trained to hone their skills to search and critically read chemical literature. Regardless of the fields they pursue in the future, citizens are always challenged to assess new information and claims they find. This activity invites students to work in teams to note claims relating to an organic compound that impacts sustainability and find scientific literature to come to their own conclusions based on the published data. The class activity would be appropriate for organic chemistry students at any level, but it has been uses as a culminating activity in Organic Chemistry II.

Context for Use

Timeframe

The timeframe for this assignment is approximately one month, students find out at the beginning of the term about the assignment. To get the students more comfortable with the chemistry of different functional groups in organic compounds, consider implementing this activity late in the semester. Students search for claims, find scientific literature, and prepare their poster outside of class time. One lecture period is used to discuss the findings in class through a poster presentation session.

Possible Use in Other Courses: This type of assignment may work well in an environmental chemistry course.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

As citizens of the 21st century, we are constantly bombarded with claims about how "chemicals" (a.k.a. organic and inorganic compounds) affect our lives. Messages come to us via television, radio, websites, printed advertisements, email, and even by claims from our own friends and families.

For instance...

"Only drink from BPA-free Nalgene bottles."
"There's Prozac in the water supply!"
"Use low-VOC paint so your house doesn't make you sick."
"Eat organic or you're eating pesticides!"
"Pomegranate juice cuts your cancer risk."

But how do we - as educated citizens - sort through claims like these to get to the scientifically-verified truth of the matter? By searching the primary research literature, students will find and assess real data which support or refute claims. After reading through these, students will then draw their own conclusions. But beyond that, they will also produce a poster to summarize the claims, findings, and their conclusions to share with their classmates and the broader campus community.

Students will be encouraged to use "systems thinking" to assess the impact of their organic compound/s on the sustainability of the environment and human health while hopefully finding connections between the two. The assignment will reinforce the ideas of "bioorganic chemistry" and "structure-reactivity relationships". It will challenge students to search and critically read the research literature and then interpret their findings in a way that is accessible to their fellow students.

The Learning Activities

  1. Team declaration and topic choice: Students are provided a project summary handout (attached) with a timeline and requirements for the project. They are then asked to consider their team and a suitable topic. Students post their decisions on an online class discussion forum so that the instructor can provide online feedback to help them focus their topic. Multiple teams working on the same project are not discouraged, as they will find different literature and it will encourage discussion and debate.
  2. Finding claims and literature resources: Students are then asked to find media claims relating to their topic and then primary (and secondary) research literature. The claims can come from written sources (products, advertisements, magazines, newspapers) or online sources. It is suggested that scanned or "screen-captured" images be used to help organize these claims for the poster. The research literature articles may be accessed through online databases (SciFinder Scholar, PubMed, etc.) available through our university library or by other means. Students will be encouraged to upload any files to a team folder on our course website to they can be easily shared among the team.
  3. Poster Preparation:The teams will download a poster template from the course website to prepare their group poster. The poster includes three sections: Claims, The Data, and "The Bottom Line". The students upload their posters to our course website and the instructor arranges the printing.

Project Summary Student Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB Nov8 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Printing large scale posters can be tricky due to formatting inconsistencies between different versions of PowerPoint in certain cases. Sticking to standard fonts and pasted objects/images (.gif, .tiff, etc.) is recommended.

Assessment

Students will be given credit regarding the logistics of the preparation (topic, references, and poster uploaded on time, etc.) The main assessment focuses on the quality of the poster - both scientific understanding, format/organization, and the way they have critically assessed the validity of the claims and placed them within the context of environmental and human health. The project is worth 70 points in this course (about half of a midterm exam). In another iteration, consider building in a poster session peer-evaluation element to see how students respond to claims that they may have believed to be true before looking at the literature.

References and Resources

Environmental Working Group http://www.ewg.org/

Evergreen State College