After having multiple instructors in recent years, only one professor will teach all organic chemistry sections this spring

Organic chemistry professor, department head discuss active learning approach to course

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Frantz researches and specializes in chemistry education. 

Courtesy University of Virginia

During the 2019 spring academic semester, all organic chemistry sections in the College — a common prerequisite for chemistry majors and medical schools — will be taught by Alicia Frantz, a lecturer in the chemistry department. Spring 2019 is the first semester in several years that the department will rely on one professor to teach all sections of the undergraduate College course.

According to Walter Harman, professor and chair of the chemistry department, this change is a result of an unexpected retirement of Prof. Glenn McGarvey and Prof. Cassandra Fraser being on leave. Harman said that he expects to have two to three professors teaching at least three sections total in fall 2019 and beyond.

Frantz researches and specializes in chemistry education. She will be teaching nearly 650 students next semester in the course.

“We do national searches for our instructors as opposed to just [within] our research faculty,” Harman said. “At this type of university, it’s very unusual to do a national search just for someone who’s going to be a professional lecturer.”

Whereas general research faculty attend scientific conferences, Frantz attends conferences that discuss education techniques. Her promotion to full professorship will be based on whether or not her work and impact in education is recognized by educators around the nation.

Frantz’s spring course is only one of the sixteen total organic chemistry courses offered by the University. For example, in addition to the CHEM 2410/2420 series typically taken by students in the College, University students may take the accelerated honors version, the nursing version or the postbaccalaureate version.

However, the undergraduate-specific 2410/2420 courses stand out for their hybrid of traditional lecture and active learning. The chemistry department at the University aims to bring alternative teaching approaches that help students retain information longer to all of its courses — from general to physical chemistry — for application beyond the classroom or exams.

“In the past with the more traditional lecture approach, you get the information in class and then do the practice on your own, so your questions never really get answered or you don’t even know you had those questions until you’re at home and nobody's really there to answer them for you,” Frantz said.

During the 2018 fall academic semester, both Frantz and Asst. Chemistry Prof. Ku-Lung Hsu taught organic chemistry and incorporated active learning in their classrooms to emphasize teamwork and application skills instead of mass memorization of information. These active learning methods — which will be used in the coming spring semester — also help counteract the effects of a large class size.  

For example, Frantz hired high-performing students from the previous year to serve as undergraduate teaching assistants, or UAs. Each UA was responsible for guiding a section of about forty students — called “learning communities” — during the active learning portion of class. UAs also monitored their own Collab page where students could post and answer questions. Additionally, both Frantz and the UAs were available for a short period after class to answer individual student questions.

“Failing is an important part of the learning process, and that’s why in our class, we have places where you can make mistakes, and it will not affect your final grade,” Frantz said. “I want you to practice trying new things and not be afraid of not getting the right answer right away because once you leave this place, your job is solve problems that don’t have answers yet.”

Another component of Frantz’s hybrid classroom is Top Hat — a centralized platform that includes the online textbook used for the class but is controversial for students.

“I liked how the lecture slides, the homework and everything was in one area,” said Nicole Chomicki, a second-year Biomedical Engineering student, who took Frantz’s Organic Chemistry I in the fall of 2018. “But I’m more of a paper person, so I wasn’t too much of a fan of having everything on a screen.”

Chomicki’s concern with the digitized course material is not unfounded. According to a 2016 study published in The Journal of Experimental Education, students demonstrated a more detailed understanding of the main point when engaged with print rather than digital texts.

For Hsu’s students who used David Klein's Organic Chemistry textbook in the fall and are transitioning to Frantz’s class in the spring, Top Hat may be a financial obstacle.

“If our class has to pay for Top Hat, I will be disappointed in the chemistry department,” Victoria Hinchberger, a third-year Biomedical Engineering student and Hsu’s former student, said in an email. “This course is one of the most expensive courses I have taken … and I fear that some people won't want to take the course because of the financial commitments you have to make.”

For students concerned with the price of the online Top Hat textbook used next semester, Frantz strongly encourages them to talk to her about alternatives. She also encourages students to talk with her or the UAs about their experiences or concerns to help adjust to her teaching style.

“My advice would just be to give it a try,” Frantz said. “It won’t feel comfortable at first, and I recognize that. But I encourage all of my students to come talk to me if they’re having difficulties with the switch to an active learning classroom, so we can figure out exactly what is the roadblock.”

According to Harman, the American Association of Universities to which the University belongs has encouraged its members to adopt practices characteristic of primarily undergraduate institutions, which only offer undergraduate programs and are smaller in size than research-oriented universities like the University. 

“The AAU is promoting strongly that all research universities move towards active learning because there are so many studies now that show that this is a much more effective learning environment that the traditional lectures that we used to offer,” Harman said.

The ongoing renovations to the Chemistry Building will add three active learning classrooms similar to those found in Wilson, Maury, Thornton and McLeod. These classrooms will have group tables to facilitate student discussion as opposed to the traditional lecture hall filled with rows of seats.

The chemistry department is distinguished by having the greatest number of general faculty lecturers — currently four — in all of the science departments, but Frantz holds a unique position as the only current organic chemistry lecturer.

“As a STEM major, I have had very few female professors,” Hinchberger said. “It really inspires me and makes me optimistic for the future of STEM faculty to see her flourishing.”

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