New class emphasizes the chemistry and
biology of everyday life
Postmarks, spring 2004
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Akinola Soyode-Johnson watched with silent anticipation as
forensic scientists prepared evidence at the Indiana State Police
Crime Lab in Indianapolis. The scientists were about to analyze
suspected drug samples using nuclear magnetic resonance
spectroscopy, a technique that can identify individual chemical
compounds. The results of this state-of-the-art chemical analysis
could help solve a case and send a criminal to prison.
"Sitting in class, it's sometimes difficult to see how the
material I am learning is applicable to normal life," said
Soyode-Johnson, a sophomore from Nigeria who is majoring in
chemistry. "But to go into a laboratory and actually see how this
information is being used in everyday situations . well, that puts a
lot of power behind the knowledge."
Soyode-Johnson and his classmates were on a field trip to the
Indiana crime lab as part of a new chemistry course called "The
Chemistry and Biology of Everyday Life." The course was developed by
UI chemistry professor Yi Lu, who received a $1 million grant from
the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help find ways to make
science courses more engaging for undergraduate students. He is
co-teaching the class with Brandy S. Russell, a HHMI postdoctoral
fellow at the UI.
"Traditional science courses follow an orderly sequence where
advanced courses are built upon the knowledge gained in previous
courses," Lu said. "Although this presents information logically,
some students may not understand why a particular concept is
important until they use it in a research project much later. This
can lead to frustration or loss of interest. In our new course, we
want students to recognize what the world of science is really like,
and how it impacts their daily lives."
Lu's primary goals are to make the required science classes more
meaningful, and to get students involved in research much earlier
than usual. "This new class is not intended to replace the
traditional courses," he said. "We want to complement those courses
by supporting and focusing the student's interest."
was first offered in the spring semester of 2003. Students are
encouraged to take the class more than once, although less credit is
offered for succeeding semesters. The main idea, Lu said, is to
enhance student interest in science through a variety of techniques
that include interesting classroom presentations and visits to
industrial laboratories and scientific meetings.
"The course exposed me to many everyday applications of biology
and chemistry that I had previously taken for granted,"
Soyode-Johnson said. "Some were simple things . like the chemistry
of soap, where we learned how soap is made and how it keeps you
clean. Others were more complex, like learning the basics behind how
nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy works. But the course also
reinforced my interest in pursuing chemistry as a career, and
revealed many fascinating areas of research that I could
His favorite part of the course, however, was the "Jeopardy"
quiz, modeled after a popular TV game show. "The students were
divided into teams that studied together, reviewing the material
that had been presented in class," Soyode-Johnson said. "The quizzes
were a lot of fun to participate in, regardless of which team
Brook DeMoisy, a sophomore from Collinsville, Ill., thought the
most exciting part of the course was attending the national meeting
of the American Chemical Society, held in New Orleans. "The
conference was huge, with scientists coming from all over the United
States," she said. "I was amazed at the breadth of research topics
that were presented, and realized the importance of obtaining
laboratory research experience while still an undergraduate."
When DeMoisy enrolled in the course, she was majoring in general
biology. While taking the course . which brought together many different areas of
biology and chemistry . she decided general biology was too general,
and changed her major to biochemistry.
"As students, we really need to think hard about what we will be
doing after we graduate," DeMoisy said. "I think a lot of people
graduate and get a job, which they then hate, because they didn't
realize exactly what they would be doing. To be both happy and
successful as future scientists, we need more than course work; we
DeMoisy is gaining that experience, and earning college credit,
working in one of Lu's research laboratories, where she helps purify
proteins that graduate students use in their experiments. "I really
like research," she said, "but it's definitely not a 9 to 5
The new course is designed to stimulate and maintain a student's
interest in the chemical sciences, whether he or she is heading for
a career in chemistry or some other field.
"One of the problems
with teaching chemistry is that on a microscopic level, people have
a very hard time relating to chemistry," said Easter Smith, a
sophomore from New Paris, Ohio. "But if the instructor can relate
chemistry to things in a student's daily life, it has much more
meaning and you learn it faster and easier."
A highlight for Smith occurred when the class visited Abbott
Laboratories, a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and medical
products in Chicago. "We received a tour of their research and
development facility, and saw firsthand what life as a researcher
would be like," she said. "The technology was amazing. It was really
fascinating to see, on a large scale, how drugs are developed and
Smith is currently a chemistry major, but she is considering a
switch to political science. "I'm considering going into pre-law,
perhaps a patent lawyer," she said. "I think an understanding of
chemistry will be a great asset for me, especially in patent law,
which is a growing field for lawyers. So I think I will major in
something like political science and minor in chemistry." The most
important aspect of the class, Smith said, is to question what you
think and explore your own interests.
Kristi Ryzner, a senior from Orland Park, Ill., who is taking the
class for the third time, agrees. "The class is more about how to be
a scientist . that is, how to logically question things . as opposed
to mastering a set of scientific facts," she said.
"Each time you
take the class, there are different opportunities and learning
experiences," said Ryzner, who is majoring in biochemistry. "Of
course, there are also additional demands and expectations placed
upon the student."
For example, as a first-time student, Ryzner had to pick a
research topic and prepare a report. As a returning student, she was
required to select a topic and prepare a proposal about how she
would conduct the research.
The student's interest is truly the starting point of the course,
Ryzner said. "Instead of simply supplying us with answers to our
questions, the instructors give us tools so we can explore our
interests and find the answers ourselves."
In the process, the students also learn a great deal about the
science they will encounter in everyday life, like the chemistry
behind soap, toothpaste or crime-scene investigation.