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Emily McLaughlin Associate Professor of Chemistry

In 2010, Professor McLaughlin developed and taught a course for non-majors called “Understanding Molecules and Medicine”. The course went well in many ways, but McLaughlin decided to re-think the goals and structure of the course after participating in conversations with her colleagues. She offered the transformed course in spring 2015. Here, she reflects on the course and its transformation.

You’ve taught your course for non-majors twice. What inspired you to change your course when you offered it the second time?

Part of my inspiration was driven by the fact that I have a strong desire for my students to be able to see what I love about science. In this course, I wanted them to cultivate their own appreciation for science and become more engaged with the biochemistry of medicines. I do not feel that I accomplished these goals the first time I offered the course. Another significant part of my inspiration was fostered through conversations with the Bard/HHMI working group on science literacy. Working with this group helped me to rethink my course goals and how those goals fit into a larger picture of a liberal arts education at Bard College. It occurred to me that students need tools to be able to look at and understand scientific information and those tools may not actually be rooted in the fundamentals of chemistry and chemical bonding!

Describe some of the ways your course changed from one offering to the next.

I first taught “Understanding Molecules and Medicine” early in my academic career at Bard. I was extremely eager to share my passion for organic/medicinal chemistry with a new group of students and I hoped to inspire some to continue pursuing studies in science. I designed the course with a “bottom-up” approach wherein we discussed the nature of atoms, chemical bonding, and molecular behavior before exploring the applications and impact of specific compounds as pharmaceuticals. This approach was heavily content-driven and I most often taught the course in lecture format supplemented with some class discussion.

In my second iteration of this course, I turned the course structure upside down in order to give the students time to learn about both the certainty and uncertainty of science and how we, as scientists, go about gathering information and making informed conclusions about our work. I wanted to find a way to connect core chemical concepts to more applied work that an individual might encounter. I opted for a “top-down” approach to looking at drug development and medicinal chemistry. We used a different set of pedagogical tools to look at the infrastructure of basic research, science funding, the FDA drug approval process, and post market risk studies on the side effects of drugs. Within that architecture, I found that students were actually quite curious about the molecular structure of medicinal compounds and they found their way to the core concepts of chemical bonding and molecular behavior in a way that would have been almost impossible to capture through a traditional lecture-style class. I allowed students more time in the laboratory to fail and repeat experiments and wrestle with data, instead of giving typical pre-lab type instruction. I also did not require my students to write technical laboratory reports; instead, I asked them to communicate their data from different perspectives. The general response from my class was that “this was harder than actually doing the chemistry!” Throughout the semester I found opportunities to tell the students about my own work in small molecule synthesis and my own trials and tribulations in research. On top of it all, we had fun!

What kinds of conversations or activities were most useful to you as you began re-envisioning your course, and why? 

After teaching the course the first time, I knew I wanted to rework my approach in teaching non-scientists. Within the context of the HHMI working group, our initial conversations about why we want our students to experience, learn, and appreciate science were just as important, if not more than discussions about what we want our students to learn. We generated ideas about how we would want our students to approach scientific issues 5-10 years after graduating from Bard. It was surprising to see so much agreement on this topic among the scientists in a variety of fields!

I also found that thinking carefully about and defining the goals of my course became central to the planning process. Once the semester had begun, I learned to be very transparent with my students about these goals. I encourage my students to be committed to shaping their experience in the course, making it a team effort.


How did your goals for the students change? How did you change the ways you assessed how well students achieved these goals?

In the first iteration of my course, I was focused on teaching a solid foundation of chemistry and using that knowledge as a jumping-off point to look at applications of pharmaceutical development. I was focused on the content over the broader skills of what to do with scientific information. My assessments were also content-based exams, lab reports, and individual presentations. 

In reworking the course I developed the following three goals for my students: 

  1. to gain appreciation, experience, and competence in quantitative reasoning within the context of experimental design (inquiry) and the evaluation of scientific data (analysis), 
  2. to acquire an understanding of the perspectives that influence scientific research as it relates to chemistry, drug development, and therapeutic marketing, and
  3. to develop written and oral skills for communicating analytical data/scientific theories. 

I emphasized to my class that I intended for them to gain confidence in evaluating scientific claims while gaining an appreciation for research in medicinal chemistry. I used a number of assessment tools for each of these goals, specifically looking for semester-long growth. These new tools included two written assignments based on case studies, one on the heart medication Vioxx® and another on the treatment of Parkinson’s disease with caffeine. The final assessment was a more lengthy group project in which I asked students to take on different roles as evaluators of a high-risk pharmaceutical. They were tasked with gathering and interpreting information relative to their assigned area of expertise, communicating that information to their working group, then piecing everything together to synthesize a recommendation to the FDA. The students worked through several drafts of this final report with my guidance. This project was intentionally designed to integrate all of the course goals. Those who were most successful displayed confidence in accessing and understanding the resources they needed to support their analysis and claims.

Describe an activity in the revised course that worked well for students. What do you think was effective about it?

The final assessment was the culmination of a semester-long investigation of the controversial drug, Thalidomide. During the first class, I introduced Thalidomide through the historical context of the tragedies that it caused in the 1950’s and 60’s. I allowed the class to generate questions about the pharmaceutical approval process and the biochemical nature of medicines. This topic was so rich that I was able to use Thalidomide as an example in many other contexts throughout the semester. Every few weeks, we returned to take a closer look at Thalidomide as I provided more information. I designed shorter in-class assignments that prompted small group discussion and facilitated connections within the fields of biology and medicinal chemistry. The students gained some level of confidence in the topic and an appreciation of the time and energy that goes into the development of a drug from basic research to putting that drug on the market.

Our students bring diverse knowledge, interests, and skills from their own experiences and fields of study. Throughout this project, I encouraged them them to harness those experiences as we also looked at the ethical implications and regulations involved in the more recent approval of Thalidomide as a marketable drug just over ten years ago. 

The students produced some impressive reports!


Was making the changes intimidating and if so, how? 

Yes! I actually found it quite difficult to relinquish control of the course content to allow room for the weekly discussions to drive the direction of the class. This was even harder in the laboratory. In the revised course, I approached the laboratory as a place for discovery. This is something that is easy for me to do in mentoring students in my research laboratory, but it was very challenging to put into practice in a Lower College course. 

My fear was that students would be frustrated if certain experiments were perceived as failures. Indeed some students came into the course saying “I can’t do chemistry,” or “I’m not a scientist.” Most left the course with a sense that they did develop a new skill set or gained an understanding of the uncertainty of science. 

I was also reluctant to move away from the core concepts of chemistry and into areas of research that were not in my area of expertise. Because I was not an expert, students were more willing to contribute to that team atmosphere I was trying to develop. Learning with the students was so rewarding. 

This was my mantra: “Forget the content. Relinquish control. Let them struggle.”

Has the process of revising this course changed the way you think about your other courses? If so, how?

In a broad sense, revising this course has shaped almost every aspect of my teaching. Even though most of my courses for science majors are still content-driven, I have adopted new pedagogies in the classroom. I now spend more time allowing my students to grapple with problems in small groups. Sometimes this does come at the cost of content, but I see this process as a way to teach them to tackle new content outside of the classroom and laboratory.