Another Angle on Analytical Curricula

Weaving elements of analytical chemistry into the first two years used to be unusual, but more and more chemistry chairs are considering this approach.

by Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society 

There’s more competition for chemistry majors than there used to be. With a spate of new majors to choose from, pandemic-induced difficulties in accessing lab resources, and other stressors, it’s no surprise that some chemistry departments are rethinking traditional curricula.

“Now is actually a really critical moment to think about, well, what do we really need to be teaching students in the lab in particular?”, says Kim Frederick, a Skidmore College chemistry professor and a member of ACS’ Committee on Professional Training. With many employers less interested in titrations than in the past, Frederick says graduates’ ability to use a range of equipment and tools is more important than ever, and a challenge for chemistry departments. (She notes, however, that ACS approved programs need not fear curriculum changes: “You can be creative in the way that you prepare your students,” she says, noting that guidelines have become increasingly flexible in the past 15 years.)

Still, incorporating training on ever-more-sophisticated equipment can be expensive and time-consuming.

Michelle Kovarik, a bioanalytical chemist, has experienced this firsthand. Alongside her duties as a Trinity College professor, including an interview for this article, she deftly handled a technician’s questions, explaining, “We pay him five hundred dollars an hour, so I don’t want him to have to wait for me.” Kovarik recently published results of a survey about undergraduate analytical chemistry curricula in the Journal of Chemical Education.

Kovarik says institutions can be slow to change, and points to the high cost of purchasing and maintaining equipment as barriers. While most programs can easily maintain ultraviolet-visible spectrophotometers, in-demand training in mass spectroscopy is much harder to attain, despite being a key way to enter, say, a pharmaceutical company as an early-career chemist.

“A lot of times, even if you know how the instrument works really well in theory, if you don't know how to click the right thing in the software, you're not going to get it to do what you want to do,” she says. The pandemic spurred a few simulation programs, but Kovarik says it’s still hard for students to build comfort with motor skills required in the lab without hands-on training.

“I've talked to people in industry. One of the things they say is hardest when students are hired out of college is not that they don't know how to do things, but that they're slow because they haven't had a lot of practice,” she says.

The traditional model of teaching general chemistry, organic chemistry, and analytical chemistry coursework before instrumental analysis is slowly starting to shift, with softer boundaries around when instrumental skills, in particular, are introduced. In some cases, analytical content is limited to lab experiences, while in others, it’s spread throughout the curriculum. At times, this looks like breaking up general chemistry segments with organic chemistry courses that incorporate a lab component to provide more hands-on experience earlier in students’ careers. For example, the University of Maryland offers its second general chemistry course, which includes energetics, only after two semesters of organic chemistry.

Still, in her survey, Kovarik found that most chemistry curricula (and the popular textbooks that support it) haven’t changed much since 2006, and there wasn’t clear consensus among survey respondents about the relative importance of various elements of analytical chemistry. That points to a murky road ahead, as departments must figure out how best to teach a new generation of students, not to mention coordinating an entire department’s shift from one set of courses to another. But some institutions have done it.

At Haverford College, Alex Norquist is part of a cadre of chemistry professors following a more modern chemistry course sequence. On a semester schedule, students take Chemical Structure and Bonding (think: quantum mechanics, spectroscopic methods, and a dash of stoichiometry, but no reactions), then Chemical Dynamics in their first year.

“In the spring, we let reactions happen, so it’s essentially a thermodynamics and kinetics class,” Norquist says. “And we approach it from a statistical mechanics perspective.” That means starting with probability statements (cards, coin, dice) and proceeding through enthalpy, equilibria, kinetics, and more.

“We build that structure, and then we give it a theoretical basis for why the structures that we just built change over time,” Norquist says. As sophomores, students take Organic Biological Chemistry, which focuses on aqueous systems, a nod to those interested in health and medical careers. In the spring, students take Organic Reactions and Synthesis, which focuses on synthetic organic chemistry (with another opportunity to learn about spectroscopy), a course more focused on students pursuing a career as a chemist.

“Seeing spectroscopy for the first time in their first semester is a lot for students, because, essentially, none of them have ever seen that before. And so our second pass at spectroscopy is pushed to the fall semester of their second year.”

The change was spurred in an unusual way. Haverford professors were following research on proposed changes to medical school requirements, which could have condensed pre-med chemistry requirements from four to three semesters, using a competency-based approach. The projected shift never materialized, but Haverford’s chemistry professors stuck with their reworked curriculum, which offered students a chance to start learning more advanced methods and concepts alongside traditional general and organic chemistry topics.

Part of Haverford’s success is its small size. “We can be a bit more nimble with change,” Norquist says. “There are fewer people that we need to convince.” The entire process, from an initial, conceptual meeting, to implementation, took about two years. Changing curricula can also support recently increased efforts to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and access to a broader range of students.

“We don't want our classes to look a lot like AP classes that some of our students have taken. And so by, you know, a way to make the classes maybe a little bit more equitable, is to provide content or show them content that none of them have seen,” Norquist says.

At Eastern Oregon University, Anna Cavinato is also hoping to show chemistry students something new. On the surface, the university’s curriculum looks like a traditional approach. But rather than conducting labs in sterile indoor environments, Cavinato takes freshmen to a local wastewater treatment plant that discharges water into a nearby wetland and wildlife refuge. Each year for the past decade, students collect water near the discharge site and several miles away, after it has trickled through the marsh into a stream.

Students measure nutrient levels in the water before returning to the lab, where they use atomic absorption spectroscopy to look at metals in the water, gravimetry to determine total dissolved solids, as well as some titrations.

“We’re the only ones that do this work,” Cavinato says. “There is nobody else.” And if the data collection is just once a year, it resonates deeply with students. “The students really develop a sense of purpose. Many students in the class are not going to be chemistry majors, but they get a sense of the entire picture, which can be transferable to [other fields],” she says.

Eastern Oregon University is located in an area with many Indigenous people, and helping to protect culturally important resources like salmon by protecting water quality is another way to help students connect chemistry from the classroom into impactful real world situations. Even the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife tracks the student’s data, occasionally visiting Cavinato’s classroom to learn more.

Whether there is a large-scale curriculum shift in the near future or not, Cavinato, Norquist, and others have a greater mission: harnessing chemistry to connect students with their communities and watching it inform a new wave of future scientists as they navigate a changing world. 

“Now is actually a really critical moment to think about, well, what do we really need to be teaching students in the lab in particular?” –Kim Frederick, Ph.D., Skidmore College