Laurie Starkey on the Challenges of Teaching Organic Chemistry

Laurie Starkey on the Challenges of Teaching Organic Chemistry

Author: Jonathan Rose

Professor Laurie Starkey teaches organic chemistry at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, USA, a primarily undergraduate institution focused on teaching. She is also the author of the book Introduction to Strategies for Organic Synthesis, aimed at undergraduate and graduate students moving from introductory organic chemistry courses to organic synthesis research.

Jonathan Rose talks for the ChemViews magazine with her about the most important things for students to learn, the challenges surrounding teaching organic chemistry, and how technology is playing an increasing role in chemical education. 

Please tell us about how your career developed?

I started college as a biology major because I liked my advanced biology class in high school. However, I didn’t really know what I would do as a biologist after graduating. When I took organic chemistry in my sophomore year, I not only enjoyed the class but I could immediately identify lots of great career opportunities, so I changed my major to chemistry. I was most interested in organic synthesis and wanted to work at a pharmaceutical company developing new drugs. I was very fortunate to gain experience through summer internships in that industry as an undergraduate student.

And when did you discover your love for teaching?

When I was studying for my Ph.D. in graduate school, I loved being a teaching assistant (TA). I never considered teaching as a career option, however, because the faculty I had observed at research-oriented (R1) institutions spent the majority of their time writing grant proposals and supervising research, while only occasionally teaching a course.

When I discovered California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona), a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), I found the perfect match for my strengths and my passion. At a PUI like Cal Poly Pomona, I have a heavy teaching load and that is my main responsibility, but there are still opportunities and expectations for research and creative activities involving undergraduate students.

What are the challenges you face in teaching organic chemistry?

Organic chemistry courses have quite a reputation, and students often enter the course with more than just a bit of anxiety, so the first challenge is to convince students that they can not only survive the course, but that they might even like it!

The real shock organic chemistry causes is the tremendous workload involved. This is typically the first truly challenging course that most students encounter in their college careers; thus it has earned its reputation as a “weed-out” class.

How do you typically address these challenges?

On the first day of class I tell the students that the reason that medical schools go straight to their organic chemistry grades on their transcripts is because success in organic chemistry requires the same skills needed to succeed in medical school: Problem solving; time management; self-motivation; good study habits. Without question, these are the most important things students will learn by taking organic chemistry. To reinforce this, I share with them testimonials from former students and various “Tools for Success” such as the Top Three Things to Spend Your Time On: textbook problems, textbook problems, and textbook problems!

While it is the student’s responsibility to learn the material, it is my responsibility to teach it well, which involves the careful organization of material and breaking down complex topics. I also work hard to supplement my course with strategies to keep the students engaged. Every day in my lecture class I present a few questions in a multiple-choice format, and the students use classroom response systems (clickers) to submit their answers. I use the voting results as a launching point for a discussion of the problem, and I make sure to point out what makes the right answer right and the wrong answers wrong. Students are much more committed to this question-based, Socratic teaching style if they have invested in an answer by using a clicker.

I’ve also tapped into technology to create online drill problems such as practice quizzes using Blackboard or WebCT and multimedia-enhanced homework answer keys using Adobe Presenter or Camtasia to capture my explanations of the solutions. If I am enthusiastic and supportive, it might encourage students to dedicate the time and effort needed to succeed.

What motivated you to develop your book, Introduction to Strategies for Organic Synthesis?

I never had an organic synthesis course as an undergraduate and I quickly found myself in over my head when I took the course as a graduate student. I pored over the assigned textbooks, but they were at an advanced level and I found them difficult to navigate.

When I taught the course as a faculty member, I hoped to identify a suitable textbook to use, but I could not find one that was written for undergraduate students. As a result, my students encountered the same challenges I had experienced and struggled to master the material.

Over the years, I developed a teaching strategy that fostered student success and I utilized that approach in this book. This is the first organic synthesis book written for the undergraduate level, so it addresses a need in the market.

What influence do you believe the book will have?

This book is designed to build confidence and support student learning. Rather than assume that the reader is an experienced organic chemist, I recognize that the reader is a student of organic chemistry. The book takes the time to review the reactions and reagents encountered in the first year of studying organic chemistry. It includes hundreds of problems for students to work on for practice. With such an approach, it can serve as a useful textbook for an undergraduate organic synthesis course or as a stepping stone to prepare for graduate-level work.

The workbook-like style of the book is ideal for self-study for those who seek an introduction to the subject, are in need of a refresher, or want to build their confidence. Once this challenging material becomes accessible to all students, not only do these students have every chance for success, but hopefully they can discover how interesting and even fun organic synthesis can be.

How does your book fit into a wider scientific or general educational context?

As an intermediate-level textbook, it does require a background in organic chemistry so it has limitations as a book for a general audience. Of course, a wide variety of degrees require organic chemistry and this book offers a student-friendly approach that would appeal to chemists and non-chemists alike. This is exciting to me because the vast majority of students who take organic chemistry never have the opportunity for any advanced study and this book opens up that possibility for them.

Are there any other projects or activities you are involved in to communicate scientific education?

I love having the opportunity to work with kids to show them how much fun science can be and hopefully to light a spark in their curious minds. It is especially rewarding to reach out to young women who may be unlikely to have role models or may be worried that it isn’t cool to be smart. I enjoy giving talks about what it’s like to be a chemist and what career opportunities are available after studying organic chemistry.

I have also developed science activities for elementary school classes and I have made them available at a YouTube channel called ChemistryConnected. For college-level students, I have developed online lectures for the entire year of Organic Chemistry for so students around the world can learn the subject. Educator is a rapidly growing website that supports learning in a wide variety of subjects in science and math. Although the site has a small fee ($35 per month), it offers a lot of value by having so many lectures available and by giving the student a chance to hit the “pause” button so they can think about the content or work on a problem before continuing. I think Educator serves as a nice complement to a traditional lecture course.

I have also created online tutorials on laboratory techniques such as distillation and extraction to help students better prepare for lab work.

Where do you see chemical education heading over the next decade?

Chemical education research continues to reinforce the importance of active learning strategies in the classroom. In the next decade, I think this trend will continue as faculty will find new and interesting ways to engage students. Technology is increasingly being employed to improve student learning, from creating wikis and blogs to using texting as a classroom response technique.

Another trend is the steadily increasing number of students taking courses online. These courses offer convenience, improve accessibility, and can offer a way to accommodate the growing student population, but I am concerned about the loss of the experience shared in face-to-face courses. I doubt I would have found my passion for organic chemistry if I had taken it as an online course, and I treasure the relationships I have built with the students I’ve met in my classes over the years.

What are your interests outside of science?

Like most organic chemists, I love to cook – it just comes naturally! My most important and rewarding job is raising my two kids, and our family loves traveling and exploring the United States. There’s so much to see and do, and so many adventures to have.

My advice to students is to find some time to enjoy life and make some memories in between classes and studying and work.

Thank you very much for this interview!

Laurie Starkey
studied chemistry at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, USA, and obtained her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, in 1996. She joined the Department of Chemistry, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, USA, in 1996 as an assistant professor and was promoted to Associate and full Professor in 2002 and 2007, respectively.

At California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Starkey has developed online laboratory tutorials, Blackboard online prelab quizzes, and created organic chemistry lessons for She is also Cal Poly Pomona’s Calibrated Peer Review (CPR) administrator and serves on the Chemistry Editorial Board of the multimedia education resource for learning and online teaching, MERLOT.

Selected Awards

  • Science Council Advisor of the Year Award, Cal Poly Pomona 2001, 2006
  • Honorary Member of the Golden Key International Honour Society 2006
  • College of Science Distinguished Teaching Award, Cal Poly Pomona 1999/2000
  • Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award, UCLA 1992

Selected Publications

  • Introduction to Strategies for Organic Synthesis,
    L. S. Starkey,
    Wiley, New York, USA, 2012.
    ISBN: 978-0-470-48409-8
  • ChemistryConnected channel on YouTube: organic laboratory tutorials and hands-on activities for K-12 students and teachers, 2012. Link
  • Organic Chemistry lectures prepared for, 2010-11. Link
  • Online Tutorials and Computer Animations for the Organic Chemistry Laboratory,
    L. S. Starkey,
    Presented at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, San Francisco, USA, 2010.
  • Using an Online Writing Assignment to Teach About Resonance and Acid Strength,
    L. S. Starkey,
    Presented at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, San Francisco, USA, 2010.
  • The Use of Stick Figures to Visualize Fischer Projections,
    L. S. Starkey,
    J. Chem. Ed. 2001, 78, 1486–1487.
    DOI: 10.1021/ed078p1486

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