Chem department complaints exaggerated

The chemistry department should have more classes focusing on primary sources and original research

By Letter to the Editor

In response to Andrew Alexander’s op-ed column (“Bad Chemistry,” 4/17/09), I agree that the chemistry department (and some professors in particular) could stand to work a lot harder on pedagogy. But I think Alexander exaggerates the problem. There are many good professors in the chemistry department, and I have had more positive experiences than negative ones in my classes. I, for one, really enjoyed Honors O-Chem. I have never had a “frighteningly antagonistic” relationship with any chemistry professor. On the contrary, I have found most of my professors to be supportive of my genuine desire to learn the material.There are definitely ways in which the undergraduate chemistry program could be improved. Incorporating the primary literature more into courses would make them more interesting for both students and professors and would help to present chemistry as a vibrant, evolving discipline and not just as a dry collection of facts. It would also be nice to have additional elective courses built around faculty research interests. Milan Mrksich’s Intermediate Organic Chemistry course, for instance, exemplifies how well a class can work when it is taught by someone who is really excited by a subject and wishes to convey that excitement to students. I think that the quality of instruction might be improved if professors were given more opportunities to teach about what most interested them.Ultimately, I think that the best feature of the University of Chicago chemistry program is the ease with which undergraduates can do research in labs. Actual research experience provides the sort of practical education that classes simply cannot (though lab classes often waste time trying unsuccessfully to replicate this experience). The department should make every effort to promote undergraduate research and should work on securing funds for undergraduate research programs along the lines of the Beckman and PCBio Fellowships. Classes in the department ought to have a more research-oriented emphasis and should aim to teach students to think like scientists and to ask incisive scientific questions. Beyond simply learning what is known, I want to learn what remains unknown in chemistry and what areas of inquiry are most active today.Thomas GrahamClass of 2009