Should Chemistry Go Interactive?

shutterstock_22775002.jpgThere’s a piece in today’s Science Times about how MIT has overhauled its intro physics class, abandoning the lecture-hall style approach in favor of smaller, hands-on, interactive classes:

“Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent.”

That rise in attendance isn’t surprising—showing up counts toward students’ grades under the new regime. The rise in test scores, on the other hand, sounds promising. It makes us here at C&ENtral Science wonder whether general chemistry is due for a face-lift as well. There’s already discussion about whether orgo should be retrofitted for majors versus med students, but is there a need to make gen chem more engaging?

The goal of the MIT program is to keep nonmajors on track, but it seems possible that if the physics class were more interesting, more people might consider the major. Would these types of small, interactive classes work for turning students on to chemistry just as well as in physics? C&ENtral Science readers, what do you say? Do we need to take a lesson from our the physics folks?

Author: Lisa Jarvis

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  1. YES. I don’t know anyone who learns properly in a lecture hall with another couple hundred students. I intentionally went to a small university to avoid those class sizes, but the intro chem course (one of my worst grades, by the way), had about 120 people in the same room as me during the lectures. Labs were smaller, of course, only about 40 people, but it is just that much harder to ask a question, tell the professor to go back because s/he was unclear, or to even just pay attention in a large classroom setting.

    I definitely was not an exemplary chemistry student, nor was I particularly interested in the subject at the time I took that course. I didn’t need it as a requirement for any other courses that I intended to take, I just needed it to be granted a bachelor’s, so I ended up skipping the lectures or playing computer games on my laptop in the back of the room and then teaching the subject to myself the night before the tests. Having smaller classes forces those who may be lost or disinterested to pay attention and get engaged, ’cause otherwise the professor will most certainly notice! This is not the type of course you want to be unfriendly, uninviting, or boring; this is exactly the course you want students to be engaged in, interested in, and wanting to come to, because otherwise, they (like me) will not take upper-level courses! By having smaller class sizes, a lot of that can be easily taken care of, in my opinion, just by having more direct interaction with the professor.

    But then you get into the issue of needing extra professors… That’s a whole new can of worms, eh?

  2. Only a good idea if at the next ACS meeting all the research talks are “hands-on”.

  3. No. It is nice to have demos, but that is what lab is for, that is where they get to be interactive and hands on. Education isnt about entertaining the students, it’s about teaching them to where they get valuable information.

  4. I think this is a great idea. Jake agrees even more, especially about the orgo classes (which he almost failed). If we as students aren’t at least slightly entertained, we aren’t really going to pay attention, so we won’t be getting the information from the lectures. If there were smaller, more interesting classes, I’d finish my science credits with chem classes.

  5. As students, you should pay attention because you and your parents pay lots of money for that education of yours. It shouldnt matter whether the lecture is entertaining or not. This consumeristic view of education is what’s wrong today. RAWR