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."

Lab Switch

The lab renovations coincide with a switch of the lab component of the department's Chem 17/27 organic chemistry track from the fall to the spring.

The fall course Chemistry 17, "Principles of Organic Chemistry," traditionally included the lab component of the year-long Chem 17/27 organic chemistry track, but students complained they did not have the adequate background from first-semester organic chemistry to be able to understand the experiments.

In contrast, organic chemistry students in the more theoretical Chem 20/30 track, which is a spring-fall track designed for chemistry concentrators, had their lab component bundled with the secon-semester segment of the track, Chem 30. In the past, Chem 17 and Chem 30 students therefore shared the same lab space and conducted the same experiments in the fall, but whereas the Chem 17 students frequently had not been introduced to the chemistry concepts used in the lab, their Chem 30 counterparts had already been taught all the necessary theory.

"The labs were out of sequence with respect to the lecture material. Students just did not have the proper background for the labs," says Erik C. Chu '98, a Mather House resident who took Chemistry 17 last year, before the lab switch.

"Students complained that they had no idea what they were doing in the lab [in Chemistry 17] because they were only in their first semester of organic chemistry," says Davis. "I feel it is better to have the lab in the second half of the class [i.e. Chemistry 27] and to solidly learn the principles first."

The lab switch will also decrease the workload for Chem 17, which has long been regarded as one of the hardest science courses at Harvard. Last year, Chem 17 received a CUE Guide difficulty rating of 4.8 and a workload rating of 4.8.

"The lab change is good because Chemistry 17 is a much harder course than Chemistry 27, and this takes a lot of the workload out," Chu says.

The lab change also makes it easier for students to switch organic chemistry tracks midway.

"Now it will be easier to take then alternate paths of Chemistry 17 and then Chemistry 30, or Chemistry 20 and then Chemistry 27, because there will be no extra lab," Chu says.

Along with the lab switch, Chem 17 also boasts a new instructor this year, Claude Wintner, a visiting professor from Haverford College, with whom Davis says students are "delighted."

"He's really enthusiastic about the material and about teaching in general. He brings the subject down the level that we all understand and has managed to take away some of the fear of the organic chemistry," says Zarine R. Balsara '98, a Quincy House biochemical sciences concentrator.

Wintner, who is on sabbatical this year, was a visiting professor at Harvard during the 1984-85 school year, when the taught Chem 20 in the spring.

"The Chemistry Department here is marvelous!" Wintner says. After graduating from Princeton University, Wintner "saw the light" and came to the Harvard for his Ph.D. in organic chemistry, [which he received in 1963]. He then taught for five years at Yale University, before joining the Haverford faculty in 1969.

"This year's Chemistry 17 class is a lively, good class. They are all trying very hard," Wintner said. "I am pleased with the results of their first hourly exam."

'Substantial Revision'

The lab switch in Chem 17-27 heralds future curriculum changes now being considered by a special committee chaired by Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry George M. Whitesides. Members of the committee, which meets weekly this term, include Professors Gregory L. Verdine, Cynthia M. Friend and James G. Anderson.

Professor of Chemistry David A. Evans, who is the chair of the department, says the committee has been meeting more frequently recently as the need for change becomes more pressing.

"The committee will be evaluating every aspect of the undergraduate and graduate curriculum," Evans says. "There could be a substantial revision, not just cosmetic changes, nine months from now."

Evans says such a major rethinking occurs about every 10 years. The last such major change occurred in 1984-85, when Dudley Herschbach was the chair and the two-track introductory organic chemistry system was initiated.

"Our collection of courses is in need of serious analysis," Evans says. "We may need to improve our course offerings to better convey the excitement of chemistry."

Students have apparently been interested in making changes in the department for a while. Two years ago, Virginia K. Loo '95-'96 and Sue Y. Kim '95 formed an undergraduate organization called the Association of Harvard-Radcliffe Chemistry Students (AHRCS), which was formed, according to Loo, because "the Chemistry Department needed more interaction between students and faculty."

AHRCS meets two to three times a semester, sponsors events such as faculty dinners and offers information on jobs and internships of chemistry concentrators. The organization also provides a way for under-class students to get advice from upperclass students about the concentration, Loo says.

Though Loo says all chemistry concentrators are considered members of AHRCS and receive bulletins and announcements by e-mail, only 20 to 30 students regularly attend the meetings.

Two springs ago, the group started a student-faculty committee, composed of two to three student representatives from each class and three faculty members in addition to Davis. The committee, which meets once a semester, allows students representatives to voice their concerns to the faculty.

And it seems the department has been receptive to those concerns. Last year, under the suggestion of the student-faculty committee, the beginning of the year-long research tutorial Chem 98 was moved from the fall of junior year to the spring of sophomore year.

"We hope to help chemistry concentrators get into research one semester earlier," Davis says.

Tenure Anyone?

But the most serious problem in the Chemistry Department, according to Loo, is the shortage of faculty available to teach organic chemistry.

Professor of Chemistry Eric N. Jacobsen says the lack of faculty is unquestionably the department's most pressing problem and points out that the department now has only seven faculty members.

"We are trying to hire atleast two professors specializing in organic chemistry and even three could be justified," Jacobsen says. "We are struggling to cover the basic introductory courses now, and usually have to hire visiting professors, like Wintner for Chemistry 17."

Though the lack of faculty has been a longstanding problem, Evans says the department wants to make sure it is selecting top-notch professors in the field.

"The organic chemistry professor search has been going on for the last several years. We do not want to hire just anyone off the street," he says.

According to Evans, two ongoing searches for Junior faculty with the expectation of tenure are now being conducted, one in organic chemistry and one in inorganic chemistry.

Jacobsen says that as part of the current revamping of the department, the faculty will have to rethink whether they are teaching in the most modern way. "I think we need to incorporate more environmental issues which are not traditionally taught into the courses," he says.CrimsonChristopher R. HartStudents in Chemistry 20 work in the newly renovated organic chemistry laboratories in the Science Center.