A Class that Hates You

| March 20, 2013 | 6 Comments

There is a statistical phenomenon that commands such great respect in academia that it goes almost without saying. It is called the CAS rule, and for the uninitiated it simply states: as the number of students inside the CAS building increases, the probability of throwing a rock and hitting either a pre-med student or an IR major approaches 1. This phenomenon is so powerful that it works even when the pool of participants is one – that’s right, if you threw a rock right now into the CAS building and only one person was standing there you would have just hit CAS’s only pre-med IR student.

Pie graph of CAS

Figure 1: A statistical breakdown of the CAS student population. The green and dark blue slivers are included for completion but are technically redundant.

If I were to ask you which was harder, being pre-med or being an IR major, you would probably say being pre-med. You would be correct. Being pre-med is quite difficult, but pre-med students are also insane so let’s pretend they don’t exist for a second and ask a different question. If I asked which was harder, chemistry or IR, you would probably say chemistry – chemistry has math and science and stuff – of course it’s harder. This conclusion, which is simultaneously thought of by every chem student after the CH 101 final, surprises no one.

But it should. Deep inside the curriculum of chemistry the subject matter is no harder than any IR course (or English or biology class for that matter). Sure, the learning curves might be a little steeper in the sciences and sure the workload of a four-hour lab is different than the workload of a 400 page novel, but after a certain point the difficulty is the same.

And you can tell by this asymptotic graph that attention span is the negative slope of...

And you can tell by this asymptotic graph that attention span is the negative slope of…

The problem is that chemistry is taught to be hard. Somebody, somewhere in the history of higher education, thought that the only “credible” science courses were the ones that had 200 students at the beginning and only 30 at the end. I can see the whole unfortunate process now. Scientific research puts a university “on the map,” the research gets over-emphasized, administrators assume that students need to be taught “research level” chemistry and general chemistry becomes a class where teachers must now cover an entire discipline in two semesters.

Can you imagine a Writing 100 class that covered every interpretation, evolution and stylistic preference of the English language from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf in two semesters?

In two years?

No, it would be the hardest class at BU.

Also the best class at BU.

Also the best class at BU.

General chemistry, instead of serving as an introduction to basic chemical principles, attempts to teach something about every aspect of the discipline. Even the best chemistry teachers can’t accomplish this task, and we shouldn’t expect them to.

The deck is stacked against general chemistry in another way. How many English classes did you take in grade school? If the answer is somehow less than the number of years you attended grade school I’d like to know which NYC magnet school you attended. Now think of how many chemistry classes you took. One? Two? Chemistry may not be harder than English, but by default we are six times more prepared to take even “Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” than general chemistry by default.

There really is no excuse for general chemistry to be as hard as it is. There is no excuse for its overly-broad curriculum or the ridiculous insistence that an introductory 100-level class must be as rigorous as the research environment around it.

In fact, there is really no excuse for general chemistry at all. Get rid of it. Get rid of Bio 101 and PY 101 while you’re at it. Give us the grammar school equivalent of science instead. Make the class interesting. Teach us something in depth at the expense of teaching something else at all.

Because all I see from the introductory science classes is a lot of students who never look at science again, and a lot of English majors who don’t even try to understand something that is a) necessary to know in a modern world and b) very interesting.

Get rid of general chemistry and focus more on what science is, a bunch of problems with interesting (and sometimes really strange) solutions.

Take this platinum atom with stuff attached to it:

In science, like in the Roman Empire, purple is the universal symbol of wealth.

In science, like in the Roman Empire, purple is the universal symbol of wealth.

This molecule has, for the better part of a year, been responsible for more fencing practices missed, Culture Shock posts unfinished and friends not seen than any other aspect of my life.

It is also, however, a member of a larger group of molecules that may be the next generation of solar cells. It turns yellow when you want it to be purple, and blue when you want it to be yellow all for reasons we don’t fully understand.

It’s a difficult problem, but perhaps no more difficult then the famous IR problem “what are we supposed to do about Cuba?”  What I do in lab and in class is difficult, but don’t think that what I do is any harder than what you do. It isn’t.

And if you want proof that English is just as hard as chemistry go and read Ulysses.

Because quantum mechanics has got nothing on James Joyce. 

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Category: Campus Culture, featured, Science and Technology

Will Carbery

About the Author ()

Will Carbery studies Chemistry in CAS and is expected (we all hope) to graduate in 2014. When he's not exploring Boston for his series "East by West by T" Will can usually be found fencing or watching Bollywood films, although not usually at the same time.

Comments (6)

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  1. nick_monty says:




  2. Michael says:

    I think the level of difficulty in Chemistry is correlated to the huge number of pre-med, pre-dental, pre-vet and pre-nursing students you have a BU and is used by the University as a “weeding out” tool. Pursuit of careers in these health sciences is rigorous and maybe its a good idea for them to find out early in their academic careers whether or not they have what it takes to be successful in these tracks. Having said that, I stand by my comment to Andrew Lacqua’s post on Chemistry: doing well or doing poorly in one subject does not a great doctor make. But, it does help a student gauge his ability, which can be very helpful when making career choices early on.

  3. Andrew Lacqua Andrew Lacqua says:

    I’m sure you already know what I have to say, if you read my response from the email. I loved this post, definitely one of my favorites! Great job!

  4. Jeff Fox says:

    I like all of this. Plenty I can respond to, also, but I’ll start with this quote:
    “Because all I see from the introductory science classes is a lot of students who never look at science again, and a lot of English majors who don’t even try to understand something that is a) necessary to know in a modern world and b) very interesting.”
    That’s partially true. BU tries to make some sciences more approachable (100-level astronomy, earth science, geography, etc.) but does not do something like that for introductory biology, chemistry, or physics (it’s closest for physics with PY 105&106, but still not quite there). I think this only serves to expand the divide. It also puts up a divide between bio/chem/physics and the other sciences. I would love a more basic version of those classes or an engineering class.
    Also, I think it’s a terrible disservice that there isn’t a history of science class offered at an undergraduate level (or even a graduate level, I believe) at BU. The context of discoveries can be as important as the discoveries themselves, and they make them more approachable. I think both science and non-science majors miss out on that opportunity, because that history is really fantastic.

    • Will Carbery Will Carbery says:

      Glad you enjoy!

      I think that your absolutely right in thinking that there is a spectrum of “approachability” with the science classes that allows geography courses to be taught more fluidly than a chem class. I see this in the physics community especially, which seems pretty tight-knit and lacks that nastiness that accompanies some of these other courses. I definitely think that Chemistry 101 is by far the worst offender. I don’t know who decided that the only measure of worth in chemistry was rigor defined as the lowest average exam score – or who decided that an entire discipline needed to be taught in two semesters- but that hypothetical person has done a disservice to science and education both.

      Not to say that the faculty of the chem department are to blame. In many cases the faculty teaching 101 are most aware of the problem and are the ones trying to mitigate the effects (even if they can’t change them).

      Jeff Fox/Will Carbery team teaching for the “History of Science 101″?

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