Remedial Physical Chemistry

I am writing to share with you what I believe to be one of the successes of the new graduate curriculum at the University of Oklahoma.

Seven of the twenty-eight in-coming graduate students this past semester have undergraduate degrees in biology and consequently have not had undergraduate Physical Chemistry. In the past, these students would have been required to enroll in the first semester of our year-long undergraduate course, which typically focusses on kinetics and thermodynamics. Unfortunately, that instruction would have come too late for the students as they were all enrolled in the zero-level graduate course in Biochemistry and Organic Chemistry (which both contain elements of kinetics and thermodynamics). Furthermore, the students would not have been exposed to elements of bonding and spectroscopy that are typically taught in the second semester of the undergraduate course. Having the students take the undergraduate course would have simply been a case of too little to late.

Because our zero-level graduate courses do not begin until the sixth week of the semester, it is possible to offer remedial instruction (a compentency-based accelerated learning program) to bring the students up-to-speed before the zero-level course begin. I put together a course I called Selected Topics in Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences. A zipped file of the course can be found here.

The course was taught autodidactly. There were 16 learning objectives that were tested using D2L-based quizzes. The students were provided the resources, and they were ultimately responsible for learning the material, but we did meet as a class once a week for a brief lecture and a problem-working session. Importantly, the material was presented in the context of biology. Ultimately, six of the seven students demonstrated competency (successfully answered more than 80% of the quiz questions correctly).

Michael T. Ashby, University of Oklahoma,

Introducing Inorganic Chemistry at the Graduate Level

Now that the first semester of our new curriculum at OU is finishing up, I would like to share with you a few thoughts about the zero-level classes (introductory graduate coursework).

The first “inorganic” course that most people take is general chemistry. Many undergraduate students go on to take an upper division course in inorganic chemistry, which is invariably a descriptive course in “the chemistry of the periodic table.” The objective of CHEM 5300 was not to pick up where that latter course left off, but rather I intended to explore the frontiers of modern inorganic chemistry with an eye to the future. Rather than attempting to address the entire field of inorganic chemistry, I focussed on three topics that I felt were areas of growth in the field:

1) Environmental Inorganic Chemistry

2) Main-group Bioinorganic Chemistry

3) Inorganic Materials and Energy

Importantly, I spent a large part of each lecture focussing on why the fields are important. See for example, see this lecture on photovoltaics.

Instead of asking the students to write a “term paper”, since we had just spent ten weeks talking about the future of the field, I asked them to select one of the topics and write a five page proposal (with a hypothesis, specific aims, etc.). I met individually with each of the students for 30-60 minutes to “review” their proposal. I stepped through the proposals and discussed their strengths and weaknesses. About half of the proposals were reasonable, but all of course could be improved upon. We concluded by discussing what they might do to improve their proposal writing skills between now and when they take their General Examinations.

For those of you who are teaching introductory graduate-level courses, you might consider incorporating the following elements …

  • A discussion of the future of the discipline with the intent of piquing interest.
  • Background that evidences the societal importance of such research.
  • Assignments that exercise soft skills (like grantsmanship and other activities that help students transition from UG to grad school).

The files for the entire course are available in my dropbox …

Dropbox Link

Michael T. Ashby, University of Oklahoma,