An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching Introductory Chemistry to Geology Students

By Knapp, E. P.; Desjardins, S. G. et al. | Journal of Geoscience Education, November 2003 | Go to article overview

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching Introductory Chemistry to Geology Students


Knapp, E. P., Desjardins, S. G., Pleva, M. A., Journal of Geoscience Education


ABSTRACT

In an effort to design a chemistry curriculum that serves the needs of geoscience majors, we at Washington and Lee have developed a new chemistry course entitled Chemistry of the Earth (Chemistry 110). This course is the first semester of a one-year chemistry requirement. The students then feed into the second course on aqueous chemistry. The course is intended to be a hands-on, geologically focused approach to teaching geologists chemistry. The laboratory uses geological examples of basic chemical principles and is largely field based using local geochemical examples. This team-taught introductory chemistry course also facilitates an interaction among the sciences. Details of the course are intended as a model for other universities undergoing similar curriculum reform or looking for new ways to teach geochemistry.

Keywords: Education - undergraduate; geology - teaching and curriculum; geochemistry

INTRODUCTION

Understanding basic chemical principles is crucial for geology students. In fact, there is an increasing emphasis placed on chemistry in earth science curricula. (Brady et al., 1997, and references therein). In many colleges and universities, the introductory-level chemistry courses required of science students (including geologists) have a predominant focus on preparing chemistry and biology majors including (but not limited to) those entering the medical field. Much of the emphasis of the traditional course is focused on the molecular context, preparing students for organic chemistry. Except for environmental references, chemists tend to use biological rather than geological systems when introducing interdisciplinary examples. The problem, in many cases, is that chemists are more likely to have some background in biology whereas many have never had a college- level geology course. Too often, in our experience, geology students do not make the connection between the physiological context of the traditional chemistry courses and applications of those same principles in the earth sciences.

As part of a University initiative to promote interaction among the sciences, there has been support at Washington and Lee for faculty to begin teaching interdisciplinary courses. In addition to initiatives at the national level, and encouragement by the University administration, the curricular reform in the earth sciences at Washington and Lee is driven by a 1997 report of an external review committee of the Geology Department. After meeting with students and the faculty, the committee reported: "The current introductory course in chemistry focuses almost entirely on materials and examples relevant to the premedical students. The geology students, at least, are seriously concerned that this course does not properly serve the needs of other science majors. "...You should use whatever influence you may have to broaden the focus of the introductory course sequence in chemistry.... It would be appropriate for members of the geology faculty to discuss the content of the course with the chairs of the other science departments, with the object of encouraging the department of chemistry to broaden its scope. Faculty members in geology and chemistry should be encouraged to work together on one or two modules focusing on applications of chemistry to the earth sciences, to be incorporated into the introductory chemistry course... This kind of collaboration would be beneficial to both departments and might pave the way for more interaction on other levels." (Thomas et al., 1997).

In response to the curricular evaluation, the Geology and Chemistry Departments are offering a new course, Chemistry of the Earth (Chemistry 110). This team-taught course focuses on earth-system-based examples of basic chemical principles and relies heavily on analytical course work. A new course was chosen in lieu of altering the current course because the material in the traditional introductory course must remain intact to serve the needs of the Chemistry and Biology majors feeding into organic chemistry, and because there was a general consensus that the material in the chemistry course should not simply be expanded. …

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