Two Successful Hooks for Learning Organic Chemistry at University Level

Mackey, Katrina and McGlacken, Gerard P. (2020) Two Successful Hooks for Learning Organic Chemistry at University Level.


Organic synthesis is a critically important facet of the chemical sciences. Organic chemistry graduates and postgraduates are highly sought after, especially those possessing ability or training in organic synthesis. The teaching of organic synthesis at third level has well-documented challenges (O’Dwyer, 2017),1 especially more recently when carried out remotely (Gomes, 2020).2 At University College Cork, we have adopted a number of strategies to engage students at the mid-Degree stage. These include research-led teaching (McGlacken, 2020)3 and the application of a number of ‘Hooks’ (Major, 2018)4 to grab students’ attention early in a 3rd year lecture course (McGlacken, unpublished).
In the first approach (research-led teaching) we adopt a cutting edge synthetic strategy, termed C-H Activation or C-H Functionalisation.
Despite the 1000’s of research publications on C-H Functionalisation, as far as we are aware, there was no example in the undergraduate literature. Our research was carried out over a 2-year period at University College Cork, Ireland (by volunteers) and at the Technical University of Vienna (TU Wien), Austria, as part of a Master’s Degree programme. New experimental conditions were devised to allow the chemistry to be carried out safely and efficiently over a 2-day period. Furthermore, a new greener perspective was taken in our approach. Student feedback was very positive and a number of the participants are now undertaking PhD studies in Organic Synthesis.
In the second approach (enhancing engagement), in order to inspire students to engage and thus learn, we devised a short history of organic synthesis and delivered it to a Year 3 cohort. Crucially, we focused on the ‘Faces (people) of Organic Synthesis’. This introduction involved a story-telling approach, focusing on the characters of the discipline, from the 1950’s through the ‘glory days’ of the 1970’s and 80’s and right up to today. The feedback was 100% positive and glowing responses were noted. Students noticed, in particular, the change in the nature of the main Actors from mostly older men in the mid to late 20th century, to a more gender and age balanced set in the last few decades.
Overall, both approaches proved surprisingly inspirational for students, and were a most timely intervention in their Degree program. We believe both approaches could be applied across all disciples of the sciences and beyond.

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