Picture from wikipedia
Carbon is special in the world of chemistry because it can form four bonds.
Picture from wikipedia

Organic chemistry trains students to use creative thinking

Students who want to change the world start small in Sean Breslin’s Organic Chemistry class. Really small. Carbon atom small. Despite the microscopic subject matter, however, students learn thinking skills in Organic Chemistry class that helps them succeed in medical school.

For most people, organic chemistry brings to mind complicated theories about atoms and molecules with little relevance or importance outside of the chemistry lab. However, according to Sean Breslin, an Umpqua Community College organic chemistry instructor, nothing could be further from the truth. But first, what even is organic chemistry?

Sean Breslin

“Organic chemistry is the chemistry of a really specific and special element, which is carbon. Carbon is special in the world of chemistry because it can form four bonds, which enables it to make an infinite number of molecules with different geometries and structures,” Breslin says. “In Organic Chemistry we look at the chemistry of carbon primarily, but also how it interacts with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements.”

Organic chemistry is not just abstruse theories about molecular interactions The reactions of organic chemistry play an indispensable role in the chemistry of life. Understanding this role helps students see the relevance of organic chemistry, Breslin says.

For example, the metabolism of glucose involves a series of organic reactions to make the energy in glucose available for our bodies. Glucose is the only fuel available to the brain, so without the ability to metabolize glucose our brains would cease to function!

At first, organic chemistry can seem completely unrelated to previous chemistry courses which are heavy in quantitative reasoning and analysis with emphasis on calculations. In contrast, organic chemistry requires much more qualitative reasoning.

“Organic chemistry really requires a different way of thinking. As anyone who has taken a general chemistry course knows, general chemistry can feel like you’re just calculating moles all day long. Organic chemistry is more like learning a new language,” Breslin says. “Sometimes solving organic chemistry problems reminds me of solving Sudoku problems, except that organic chemistry has tremendous power to improve our lives.”

Learning these new thinking skills is a steppingstone to career success for students preparing for medical, dental, veterinary, or pharmacy school. These students are required to take organic chemistry for admission into a professional program.

“While not discounting the value of organic chemistry as science, I really feel that the mode of thinking students learn in organic chemistry is one of the biggest benefits for organic students,” Breslin says. “The ability to see a complex system and apply general patterns to solve problems and come up with original analyses is extremely important. Organic Chemistry helps students develop insight and ideas for problem solving rather than just memorize information.”

Organic chemistry can also be used a predictor of success in a professional program. Students who do well in an organic chemistry course often are able to perform well in the rigors of a professional curriculum.

“A lot of introductory science classes require the ability to remember facts and information. Usually Organic Chemistry is one of the first classes that really requires an understanding of processes and principles of mechanisms in order to solve problems,” Breslin says. “While it’s not to say that students can’t rise above a poor performance in organic chemistry and become a spectacular doctor, Organic Chemistry can be used as a 1,000-foot view of a candidate by professional programs.”

This emphasis on principle and problem solving is part of what Breslin finds most fascinating about organic chemistry, especially when it can be applied to the chemistry of life.

“When I first studied biochemistry, I treated it like a biology course. I memorized the acronyms and names of molecules but did not take the time to understand the organic chemistry underlying the biochemistry I was learning,” Breslin says. “However, later on as I was in graduate school I began to recognize the core set of structures from organic chemistry made up the building blocks of the molecules relevant to biochemistry. I was then able to see the patterns in reactivity based on these structures, which really gave me insight into how life has repurposed the same types of organic structures to accomplish a variety of tasks.”

The ability to see past the details to the bigger picture of these reactivity patterns and similarities is one of the things new organic students struggle with most, Breslin says. The details of bonding, mechanisms, and syntheses can be overwhelming to students, but as proficiency grows, so does students’ ability to recognize patterns and relationships between different functional groups. When students are able to do this, the chemistry comes to life.

Madds McCann

“The most important thing is know why something happens instead of that something happens,” says Rebekah Cole, UCC Organic Chemistry student. “Forming a reason why something happens that makes sense to you individually will make the class go a lot easier.”

Organic chemistry is a difficult class, but the connections and insight on biology that can motive students.

“Organic chemistry is absolutely the most difficult course I have taken at UCC,” says Madds McCann, a UCC student and biology major. “But the subject matter is so intriguing and universally applicable that I keep coming back for more.”

Students often find that the new thought patterns are best learned through dialogue within a study group. McCann finds comparing ideas and solutions to problems with classmates is a key study method for organic chemistry.

Colleen Jackson

Colleen Jackson, a UCC student and chemistry major, agrees with McCann. “Study hard, take advantage of professor office hours and create a connection with other people in the class. They are going through the same material as you,” Jackson says. “It is helpful to compare answers, create study groups and work on labs together. You’ll probably make some lifelong friends in the process too!”

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