The strength is in numbers

Now that the spring semester is over, there is more time for research. But then again, teaching thoughts tend to pull you back. Kind of like that Al Pacino quote (later immortalized in the Sopranos show):

Seriously, though, those of us who spread the gospel of knowledge and enjoy doing it, have a baseline set of teaching ideas that we tend to go back to and refine over the years. I for one always catch myself thinking about better ways of delivering organic chemistry material. As I was riding my train back home today, I realized that there are concepts that consistently present trouble to students. This is what you might call “intangibles” of chemistry teaching. In other words, these concepts are so obvious that one does not feel a need to break them down in lectures, thinking that they must be self-explanatory. But this is wrong. I can name one such intangible now and it might sound ridiculous to some of you. Let’s say we describe a general reaction wherein A is converted into B. Many first year students have trouble grasping the fact that we are not talking about one molecule of A. Rather, we describe a distribution of molecules that vary in terms of kinetics. You might think this is trivial, but I am really adamant that here lies one of the fundamental flaws of how we present chemistry material. It is really important to emphasize the Boltzmann distribution all the time. If our students learn to think about ensembles of molecules, they will be able to have a more intuitive grasp of chemistry. They will better understand the concept of yield and the fact that it is a relative rates phenomenon. This understanding will help them in more advanced courses, where they will learn about bioactive molecules and get excited about nanomolar inhibitors (that are way “cooler” than the micromolar ones). I suppose things would be a bit more down to earth in the “nanomolar” camp when our students consider that it is not about just one magical “silver bullet”. In the case of a nanomolar binder, we are talking about 1014 molecules of that type swimming around!

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