Chemistry Dept. Mulls Changes

Science Feature

After more than a decade without significant change, Harvard's Chemistry Department, home to four Nobel laureates and the site of such historic feats as the synthesis of cholesterol, is now mulling significant changes in its curriculum, teaching methodology and faculty.

Some changes in the laboratory facilities and the organic chemistry curriculum have already been instituted as part of this initiative.

Hoods for Everyone

This past summer, the department revamped its aging laboratories in the Science Center, which are used by undergraduates and extension school students for coursework.

"The [labs] are just beautiful, more efficient, and with so much better ventilation," says James E. Davis, head tutor and director of undergraduate studies in chemistry.

According to Davis, the Chemistry Department has three undergraduate-laboratories in the Science Center: two for first-year chemistry (such as Chemistry 5, 7 and 10), and one for organic chemistry (such as Chemistry 30 and 135). The organic chemistry laboratory was simply too small and crowded to accommodate students, says Davis.

David Kammler, head teaching fellow for Chem 30, "Organic Chemistry," says a wall was therefore moved about 12 feet to expand the lab space. The lab's 12 workstations were replaced with eight superior ones, and two new instrument rooms and three new teaching fellow rooms were constructed.

The installation of new hoods--enclosed bench areas which protect students from explosions and fumes--also promises to make the laboratory much safer.

"Students used to do their reactions on bench top. Now we have new hoods and stations, so now nothing is done outside of hoods," Kammler says.

Kammler says there is now one hood for every two students, which is comparable to the level of facilities enjoyed by graduate students engaged in research.

In addition, there is now one new rotavapor--a machine that removes solvents--for every two students. In the past, many of the rotavapors were inefficient and did not function properly, leaving students waiting in line for their use. Other changes include the addition of new balances and melting point apparatuses, and each student now has his or her own sink, says Kammler. Eventually, students will be responsible for taking care of their own glassware as well.

The air quality and temperature control in the labs has also been improved with a new exhaust and fan system.

"We have 45 air changes an hour, which is more than double the number of hourly air changes in the past. If you walk into the labs right now, you will not smell chemicals," Kammler says.

The lab layout has also been totally reconfigured, such that one side of the lab is a mirror image of the other.

"Such changes make the labs safer and faster," Kammler says. "You have what you need at your fingertips, and there is much less traffic."