Simple Strategies for
Improving General Chemistry Lectures/Classes

Biology and Medicine Examples for Chemistry Lectures/Classes

In an effort to illuminate connections between disciplines and to get students excited about chemistry, we developed brief examples that relate the concepts taught in general chemistry to inspiring topics in biology, medicine, and MIT research. Each example requires only two to five minutes of class time, enabling interdisciplinary connections and student inspiration without sacrificing any chemistry content in a curriculum. Our examples satisfy newly issued American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC)-HHMI recommendations calling for premedical courses to teach the application of basic knowledge and the underlying scientific principles in human health and medicine.  Classroom-ready examples are freely available through MedEdPortal and MIT OpenCourseWare (see below).

When starting this initiative, we wondered whether it was possible to boost the impact of general chemistry lectures on student motivation and interest through subtle and inexpensive changes; namely the addition of short biology and medicine-related examples. We were thrilled when a multi-semester assessment of MIT general chemistry course 5.111, carried out in collaboration with Dr. Rudy Mitchell in the MIT Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL), revealed that students credited the interdisciplinary examples for increased interest in chemistry, awareness of the role of chemistry in biological and biomedical research, and the realization that knowledge of chemistry is important for success in biology, medicine, and related fields. In addition, there was a dramatic improvement in lecture attendance and course ratings following the implementation of these examples in conjunction with improvements in TA training (link here) and active learning through clicker questions.

Online Resources

MedEdPortal Resource:

This resource includes fifteen of our in-class examples for general chemistry that relate chemical principles to inspiring topics in biology and medicine. Each example includes background information for the teacher and PowerPoint slides that can be used directly in the classroom or revised as desired. Most examples include an in-class question within the PowerPoint slides for use with or without classroom response devices. Downloadable materials include: 1.) an Instructors Guide (PDF) including an index of examples, 2.) a PDF file (27 pages) with instructor background information for each of the biology and medicine-related examples, and 3.) a PowerPoint file (97 slides) with approximately 5 to 10 slides per example. Registration is required to access this resource, but the registration is free.

Course 5.111 through MIT OCW:

This MIT OpenCourseWare site includes video lectures and course materials from MIT Course 5.111 (Principles of Chemical Science) from the Fall of 2008, taught by Prof. Cathy Drennan and Dr. Beth Taylor. The resource includes video lectures, transcripts, a list and brief descriptions of biology-related examples with suggestions for integration into lecture , sample exams, and selected homework problems from that year of the course.

Related Publications

Taylor, EMV, Drennan, CL (2010) Redox Chemistry and Hydrogen Bonding in Drug Design: Using Human Health Examples to Inspire your High School Chemistry Students, Chem 13 News, Oct ‘10, 8-10.

Taylor, EMV, Drennan, CL, (2010) Biology and Medicine Related Examples for General Chemistry Lectures. MedEdPORTAL

Taylor, EV, Mitchell, R, Drennan, CL (2009) Creating an Interdisciplinary Introductory Chemistry Course without Time-Intensive Curriculum Changes, ACS Chem. Biol., 4(12), 979-982.

Taylor, EMV, Drennan, CL (2007) Bringing the Excitement of Biological Research into the Chemistry Classroom at MIT. ACS Chem. Biol. 2(8):515-517.

Two-Minute Videos: Faces of Chemistry

We have recently created a series of twelve short (under three minute) videos that capture the excitement of MIT research by featuring undergrads, grad students, postdocs, and professors discussing how a general chemistry concept is essential to their research and to an inspiring real-world application. Like our biology and medicine-related examples, these videos are designed to connect with and inspire students, while requiring minimal class time. The videos illuminate both the why and the who of chemistry: why chemical principles are fascinating and important, and who chemists really are (in addition to the dead white men overrepresented in many textbooks and courses). The set of twelve science videos feature (1) twelve distinct general chemistry topics ranging from pH to atomic orbitals, (2) a broad range of applications ranging from cancer detection to the sequestration of greenhouse gases, and (3) a diverse group of scientists, including both women and men, a wide range of ages, different races and ethnicities, and individuals from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds.

We are also in the process of completing a set of accompanying or stand-alone videos, one video for each scientist featured, which explore the personal journeys, experiences, and challenges to becoming a scientist. This video set is appropriate for viewers of all ages regardless of their science background. Challenges discussed include overcoming learning disabilities, growing up gay and intellectual in a conservative small town, having to learn English in order to understand science class, and how these varied paths all led participants to their currents positions as MIT researchers. The videos also tell stories from a variety of perspectives: from individuals who have always wanted to be chemists to those who never imagined becoming scientists, and many possibilities in between.

Through a two-semester assessment examining the impact of the science videos in lecture, students reported gains in their motivation to learn and to apply chemical concepts and in their appreciation of the diversity among scientists at statistically significant levels. Retrospective interviews are currently being conducted with past students to gain a qualitative understanding to supplement the quantitative data.

Online Resources

Please visit our video website for free access to all of the two-minute videos:

Best Practices for Clickers in the Classroom

When effectively employed, clickers can promote active learning and illuminate areas of weakness for students in large lectures. Through a multi-year evaluation, we found that how clickers are used in the classroom has a significant impact on the student experience in lecture. For example, 71% of freshman chemistry students reported enjoying clickers and 85% reported that clicker questions stimulated them to think conceptually during lecture in semesters where clicker questions were designed to require problem-solving, were used throughout the lecture, and were presented as a opportunity for student self evaluation.

Clicker Competitions: We have also experienced enthusiastic student response to weekly “clicker competitions” between recitation sections, which increase Friday lecture attendance, add a palpable excitement to class, and create a sense of teambuilding within recitation sections without taking up significant class time. In clicker competitions, recitation teams are pitted against each other in a friendly competition to see which recitation can get the highest percentage of clicker questions correct. Ongoing research examines how creating a sense of teamwork through these competitions positively impacts active participation in lecture.