Science and the Nonscience Major: Addressing the Fear Factor in the Chemical Arena Using Forensic Science

Article excerpt

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This article describes an approach to minimizing the "fear factor" in a chemistry course for the nonscience major, and also addresses relevant applications to other science courses, including biology, geology, and physics. The approach emphasizes forensic science and affords students the opportunity to hone their analytical skills within the context of the whodunit nature of criminal cases.

Faculty who teach the science course for nonscience majors at colleges and universities recognize that students typically shun such a course because they frequently view science as a strange, intimidating world they would prefer to avoid. So the instructor, well aware of this "fear factor," has the task of offering a course that, somehow, can help capture student attention, and hold it. One way to do this is to incorporate into lectures details of fascinating cases involving the chemical criminal. This type of criminal is more dangerous than the criminal who uses the "traditional" knife, handgun, or blunt instrument to harm others because the former individual, unlike the latter, generally has the advantage of not being present when the crime occurs.

Many students respond positively to such material because the intriguing whodunit nature of the criminal case affords them a stimulating context within which they can enhance their chemical literacy in an increasingly chemical world, hone their analytical skills in an inquiry-based format, and experience the key role played by chemistry in the solutions of criminal cases.

Although the emphasis here lies in the chemical arena because my training is in chemistry, I would emphasize that the role of forensic science in the solution of criminal cases often involves other sciences as well, including biology, geology, and physics. Thus, the instructor of a course for the nonscience major focusing on a science other than chemistry can also develop material involving criminal cases that would be appropriate for his or her students.

Course description

Brooklyn College students are required to participate in the College's core curriculum. Prior to the Fall 2006 semester, that curriculum included a science component consisting of four required two-credit courses in, respectively, biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. Majors in any of these sciences were excused from the core course in that particular science, and from the others as well if they were required to take more advanced courses in those sciences. Consequently, students taking the chemistry core course ("Core Studies 7.1--Science in Modern Life: Chemistry," or, more simply, "CS 7.1") were nonscience majors.

While the focus here is on my experience with CS 7.1, which spanned a period of 25 years, I would emphasize that the teaching approach involved is readily applicable to any chemistry course for the nonscience major and, specifically, to "Core Curriculum 3.22," or "CC 3.22," the successor course to CS 7.1. CC 3.22 has the same title as CS 7.1 and is associated with the new core curriculum implemented at Brooklyn College in the Fall 2006 semester. The science component of the new curriculum requires that students select two three-credit courses, one in either biology or chemistry, and one in either geology or physics.

CS 7.1 consisted of two-50 minute lectures per week in a 14-week semester and a 100-minute laboratory class during alternate weeks, for a total of seven laboratory classes per semester. (CC 3.22 maintains the lecture schedule of CS 7.1 and essentially the same subject matter content, but expands the laboratory component to weekly 100-minute classes.) The required text in CS 7.1--which continues to be used in CC 3.22--was Chemistry for Changing Times (Hill and Kolb 2004). The departmental laboratory experiment packet used in CS 7.1 has experiments focusing on the physical and chemical properties of matter, qualitative analysis for ions, stoichiometry, and organic molecular model building. …