Stephen MacNeil Makes Organic Chemistry Interesting for Undergraduate Students
For many students walking into Dr. Stephen MacNeil's 200-seat lecture hall for the first time, the experience can be daunting.
"They're coming scared, in most cases," MacNeil says with a laugh, knowing that Introduction to Organic Chemistry courses have a reputation for being difficult -- rightfully so, as there are more than six million known organic compounds in the world to study.
That's why MacNeil is dedicated to showing his students that while organic chemistry -- simply defined as the study of organic carbon compounds -- is indeed complex, it is important to everyday life, as organic compounds are in everything from the food we eat to the products we use.
"At the beginning of class, I like to show examples of organic chemistry that I myself find fascinating," says MacNeil, who accepted an assistant professorship at Laurier in 2003 following postdoctoral studies in Illinois. "In class, we once looked at the example of 'home team advantage' in sports, and how some researchers found out after following a women's hockey team for a full year that their testosterone levels were higher before home games than away games. Hence, there's a belief that there's a chemical reason behind 'home field advantage,' and that's the kind of examples I like to bring into my classroom because it's something they can think about when they're watching something like the Olympics. I always like to introduce a topic with something current or newsworthy that can be applied to whichever material we're covering on that day."
And there's a lot to cover, as organic chemistry's industrial applications have led to the manufacture of everything from drugs and synthetic fibres to plastics and dyes. "I show them the bad things, along with the good things regarding organic chemistry," says MacNeil. "Students' emotions to what they're learning in organic chemistry can be strong in either direction because there are a lot of examples of detrimental organic compounds. I'm certain a lot of my students will think about organic chemistry when they hear about pesticides in the media."
Clearly, MacNeil recognizes that the link between what he's teaching and students' emotions enhances the likelihood that they'll remember something long after they graduate. "My advice to a new faculty member teaching a course in organic chemistry would be that you to have to show students the relevance of the material you're covering," says MacNeil, who in 1991 decided he wanted to be an organic chemist after taking Introduction to Organic Chemistry, taught by Dr. David Sneddon at the University College of Cape Breton.
MacNeil added that learning organic chemistry is so much more than just the memorization of facts: "If you're just having them look at a textbook and read the material, and you're not getting the students to think about those facts and the applications of them, then they're going to be completely bored."
That's why MacNeil suggests that an active learning approach is key to engaging students when teaching organic chemistry. "They need to be actually doing these things and applying what they know," says MacNeil, whose own research is conducted in a state-of-the-art organic synthesis lab located in Laurier's Science Research Centre. "I've read that in a classic lecture approach, students don't learn that much. I've read that students retain about 20 to 25 percent of the material that you give them in a lecture format, so really, you have to have them actively engaged in the material because most of them learn by doing and not by just listening to me talk."
MacNeil quotes the old Chinese proverb: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand."
Understanding organic chemistry, by integrating life and learning, is important because organic chemistry touches all our lives. Students learn that every year organic chemists like MacNeil make new discoveries that are helpful in everything from improving medicines and understanding the human body to aiding agricultural growth and improving our quality of life. "It's all around us," says MacNeil.
"And by showing my students that what they are learning is both relevant and fascinating," MacNeil concludes, "They discover that organic chemistry isn't all that scary."
Marshall Ward was a studio instructor for five years in the Fine Arts Program at Laurier, and was the recipient of the 2007 Wilfrid Laurier University Award for Teaching Excellence, Part-Time Contract Academic Staff. He is a weekly columnist with the Waterloo Chronicle and contributing writer for SLAM! Wrestling (Canoe/Sun Media).