Students focus on thin layer chromatography (TLC) in the first module of the new Chem 211 curriculum. After learning and practicing TLC, they apply it to monitor the progress of a bromohydroxylation reaction. Photo by Suzanne Tainter

Teaching organic chemistry labs at the University of Michigan presents a paradox. The course must be accessible to first-year undergraduates but must also incorporate concepts and techniques actually used in organic chemistry laboratories. These students may not have any lab experience coming into the course, yet they are expected to learn techniques that aren’t typically taught until the second year.

To tackle this problem, the chemistry department is offering a new version of organic chemistry lab—Chem 211— that focuses on select organic techniques and exposes students to authentic research experiences.

The newest version of Chem 211 breaks the course into modules, each of which focuses on a new technique or concept in organic chemistry: thin layer chromatography (TLC), liquid-liquid extraction (LLE), and green chemistry. As each module unfolds, students learn a technique, practice the technique on new materials, and finally apply the technique in a research-like experiment.

The experiment includes doing an organic reaction, making and testing a hypothesis, and comparing data with classmates—as would occur in authentic research. For example, at the end of the green chemistry module, students re-do a previous reaction but can change any variable to make it more “green” by changing solvents, concentrations, or other variables.

Neither the instructors nor the students know what the results of these experiments will be—that is by design. Professor Anne McNeil worked with chemical education postdocs and graduate student instructors who are part of the future faculty program (FFGSIs) to redesign the course to incorporate as much of a research-like experience as possible. There are about 2,000 students enrolled in Chem 211 each year, and she points out that “Chem 211 is about as close to research as we can get on that scale!”

In the new version of Chem 211, students work collaboratively to test hypotheses in experiments that model authentic research experiences. Photo by Suzanne Tainter

The previous version of this lab introduced a wide range organic chemistry techniques and concepts, but students didn’t get the chance to refine or apply them. Dr. Kathleen Nolta, who has taught versions of the course since 1996, says that exposed first-time lab students to a wide variety of “spot techniques” but there was no opportunity for students to go back and practice what they learned.

The new course focuses on fewer techniques, but these techniques are revisited in new organic reactions at the end of each module. For example, students learn TLC technique at the beginning of the first module. By end of the module, they apply TLC to monitor the conversion of their starting materials to products in a bromohydroxylation reaction.

"What I love about the new curriculum is that you’re basically addressing a technique, but you’re not just addressing it one way, and you’re not addressing it just one time,” Nolta says. 

In addition, students have access to instruments that aren’t widely available elsewhere. This semester, Nolta has incorporated benchtop 1H Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometers into the course. “It’s my favorite! I fell in love with them," Nolta exclaims.  “I think 211 now really deserves the name Orgo I Lab, it’s definitely organic chemistry.”

The new course was developed with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and aims not only to engage students in chemistry but to keep them coming back for more. For many students, Chem 211 may be the only semester of lab experience they had intended to take.

“If this is their only semester of organic chemistry, can we capture their imagination a little bit more and teach them a little more science, and scientific thought and how research works?” McNeil asks.  "With reactions, research-like experiences, and topics that relate to the 'real world,' we  hope to energize first-year students to continue studying chemistry."