Top Down Teaching

Mark M. Green, a Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, is fond of a quote by Charles Kettering,  who invented the first electric starter for automobiles: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress. “ Green has experienced the truth of that statement about a new top down approach he has created to teaching organic chemistry.

Green, who has taught chemistry for more than four decades, realized that the way organic chemistry is typically presented—with complex principles covered first and practical context explained later—might benefit from a paradigm shift. He had felt this way for many years but it was not until he reached an age when it was appropriate to reduce the time spent on his internationally recognized research work that he had the opportunity to pursue his idea. What if, he wondered, students were allowed to discover the fundamental principles of the science by being exposed to the complex phenomena that arise from these principles? And what if these complex phenomena were presented with a story telling historical approach?  For example, rather than immediately launch into an explanation of carbocations, ions with positively charged carbon atoms, Green would discuss their role in the production of high octane fuel and then show how the identical properties were at work in life to produce the precursors of the hormones that drive our behavior. How about giving the student the opportunity to discover the nature of carbonyl compounds, where carbon is bonded to oxygen, by coming across the manner in which we digest fats and sugars and gain energy from what we eat. 

Teaching in that historically rich and multi-layered way would require a different kind of textbook, Green knew, and he set about to write one himself. Years before, he had collaborated with Harold A. Wittcoff, a former director of corporate research at General Mills, on Organic Chemistry Principles and Industrial Practice, a well-regarded text that was published by Wiley-VCH in 2003.  After seven years of effort on the new book, the same company offered to publish it, and other publishers also expressed interest, but Green had a different idea.

Green, who blogs at ScienceFromAway.com, discovered that the on-line bookseller Amazon ran a program called CreateSpace, which allowed authors to bypass large publishers and release their books themselves, and in late 2012, he self-published Organic Chemistry Principles in Context: A Story Telling Historical Approach.  He choose to self-publish to keep the cost of the book down, which he considered essential for a book taking a radical approach. It is being sold for only $25, a fraction of the cost of conventional organic chemistry textbooks. 

Green wrote in the Introduction: “In the academic study of the arts, the principles necessary to create a work of art such as a painting or a poem or a musical composition are discovered by studying the completed work. In this way the student encounters the beauty arising from the use of these principles at the very beginning, with the pleasure of this encounter stimulating the desire to understand what stands behind such an accomplishment.” Green continued, “The intention in writing this book is to demonstrate that the approach taken in the arts can be successfully used in organic chemistry and perhaps in other disciplines of science as well.”

Unfortunately, Kettering was correct in believing that some people hate change. The book immediately generated disagreement in the organic chemistry community, with more than a few critics asserting that his approach had shortcomings and some predicting that Green’s students would be woefully unprepared for the MCATs and other standardized tests.  However, Green received a letter from one of the members of a Howard Hughes committee overseeing changes to the MCAT that states: “You may know that the premedical education requirements are undergoing a fairly radical change, which will be reflected in the MCAT exam as of 2015. . . . One likely consequence is that students will really have to understand the principles of organic chemistry to do well, not just memorize bundles of facts. Your book could be extremely timely.”

Despite the cavils, some personally critical, many reviewers found the text groundbreaking and intriguing. In a piece for the respected journal Nature Chemistry, Adam M. Azman called the book a “refreshing deviation from the norm” and concluded, “[It] offers a fascinating and dramatic change to the landscape of textbook choice.”

Green was most concerned with how his NYU-Poly students would feel about using the book. Justin Canna, a junior, said, “Many chemistry professors make you memorize long lists of mechanisms or rules, with the goal of being able to spit them back out for tests. Professor Green believes that practical applications are more important. Maybe you will learn fewer mechanisms in his class, but you’ll really understand how they work, and you’ll be able to put that knowledge to use in your career.” Canna undeniably knows what it involved in launching a successful career; he is one of the principals of the biotech company Suneris, which has developed a wound-repair gel that promises to revolutionize trauma care. Another student, Omar Yassin, concurred. “I was just studying for my final exam,” he said, “and it struck me that I knew the material really well. Professor Green eases you into the language of organic chemistry, so it’s not intimidating, and learning feels like a very natural process. He gave me a firm footing in the field, and I’m looking forward to studying it further.”

Despite such encouraging words from his students, Green, a past recipient of a Jacobs’ Excellence in Teaching Award from NYU-Poly, is realistic about the prospects of his book being widely adopted in other classrooms.  “Many professors across the country have ordered a copy to take a look, but only time will tell whether or not it can be considered a success, that is, will actually cause a shift in the way people teach organic chemistry and even other sciences” he said. “At the very least, I’ll know that I tried to initiate a needed change in science education. There is satisfaction in that.”