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Improving how Stanford teaches chemistry

Reconstructed chemistry classes offer a better experience for students with support from donations through The Stanford Fund

This scene from Chem 31B is part of a larger effort to improve introductory chemistry courses at Stanford and to address the discrepancy between how science is taught and how scientists conduct their research. Research is a collaborative process driven by curiosity and a desire to solve real-world problems. However, too often, science classes consist of a single professor who lectures for the full class period, with little time for questions and interaction among students.

From left to right: Jessica Yeung, ’21, Jennifer Poehlmann, Senior Lecturer of Chemistry, Grace Mueller, ’21, and Jiwoo Lee, ’21, discuss the interaction of various wires with metal nitrate solutions as students prepare to make a simple battery.

With support from donors who give through The Stanford Fund, the Department of Chemistry has increased the number of lectures offered and assigned more teaching assistants (TAs) to each introductory class. This has reduced class sizes and improved opportunities for students to interact with professors and TAs. Course content now incorporates more real-world examples that provide context for class topics. For example, after the Chem 31B exercise about lead pipe corrosion, the discussion turned to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

These changes extend beyond the lecture hall. Weekly two-hour labs have been redesigned to be more hands-on, allowing students the excitement of discovering chemical phenomena on their own. Students who require more help can sign up for a companion class that gives them additional time to explore concepts. The additional class is held on a different day from lectures and labs and helps to spread out the learning experience.

Science should be treated like learning a language. You study and practice a little bit every day. You don’t cram.
—Jennifer Poehlmann, Senior Lecturer of Chemistry

As a result of these changes, students are more engaged and are asking more questions in class. TAs and professors are able to discuss strategies with students as they work through problems, and provide feedback on an ongoing basis.

Left to right: Tracy Lang, ’21, Gabriel Saiz, ’20, and, Olivia Mitchel, ’21 record voltage readings during a lab covering redox reactions and voltaic cells.

TAs walk around during lecture, offering advice and answering questions. It’s a very rewarding feeling to have students actively participate and enjoy the material you are presenting to them.

I came to Stanford liking chemistry, but unsure of what I wanted to pursue. Taking the introductory chem classes my freshman year, and interacting with all the encouraging and approachable professors and TAs, furthered my love for chemistry and inspired me to pursue it as a major and career.

—Katherine Carr, ’18, a TA for Chem 31A and Chem 31B