Science & Research, University News

Petition calls for increased chem offerings

Current course scheduling hinders efforts to complete concentration, prepare for med school examinations

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2016

First week in BioMed mostly dedicated to training sessions where monitors are used throughout for practical pipetting training with students, February 1, 2016. Photo by Frank Mullin/Brown University

Pre-medical students wrote a petition last week calling for the University to expand the offerings of certain chemistry courses in order to allow students who take CHEM 0100: “Introductory Chemistry” to finish their requirements earlier in their academic careers.

The petition, which has accumulated 167 signatures, asks President Christina Paxson P’19 and Department of Chemistry Chair Matthew Zimmt to offer CHEM 0350: “Organic Chemistry I” and CHEM 0360: “Organic Chemistry II” during both the fall and spring semesters of the academic year.

A student who takes CHEM 0100 follows up the course with CHEM 0330: “Equilibrium, Rate and Structure” in the spring of freshman year. But CHEM 0350, the next course in the typical chemistry sequence, is only offered in the spring, and CHEM 0360: “Organic Chemistry II” is only offered in the fall. Taking CHEM 0100 forces students to wait an extra semester to continue the chemistry track, meaning that these students will finish their chemistry requirements a year after those who started with CHEM 0330.

CHEM 0330 is a more advanced general chemistry class than CHEM 0100. Typically, students who take CHEM 0330 have a stronger background in chemistry due to a rigorous high school program or Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credit. High schools with more challenging programs and more advanced opportunities tend to be well-funded public schools or private schools. Therefore, students from under-funded high schools without advanced chemistry programs take CHEM 0100 and subsequently finish their chemistry requirements one year after their better-prepared peers, the petition stated.

The petition originally requested that the University offer CHEM 0350 in the fall but was modified several days after its publication to also call for CHEM 0360 to be offered in the spring. The modification also included a demand that, should the University hire a new professor to teach these courses, it hire a person of color.

The gap in course offerings may also affect students’ medical school applications, in light of recent modifications to the process. In 2015, the MCAT was changed to include a new section on biochemistry, among other additions.

Most Brown pre-medical students take CHEM 0330, CHEM 0350, CHEM 0360 and BIOL 0280: “Introductory Biochemistry,” said George Vassilev, director of pre-professional advising and associate dean of the college.

He added that pre-medical students sometimes take CHEM 0400: “Biophysical and Bioinorganic Chemistry” as well. “That’s the most typical coursework that prepares students well for the MCATs and is accepted by the great majority of medical schools,” he said.

But students who take CHEM 0100 usually do not take a biochemistry course until the spring semester of junior year — when many students chose to take the MCAT, particularly if they apply for medical school during senior year. Biochemistry can be taken concurrently with CHEM 0350, but few students choose this option due to the time investment required by each of the two courses, petition authors noted. Therefore, taking CHEM 0100 puts pre-medical students at a disadvantage when taking the MCAT, as they have not had as much time to prepare as students who were able to finish requirements earlier, the petition stated.

Marlene Martinez ’19, one author of the petition, started the pre-medical track last semester and decided to take CHEM 0330 rather than CHEM 0100 based on the results of her placement test. She felt like she should have taken CHEM 0100 but knew that she would end up unprepared for the MCAT and be forced to take a gap year before medical school, she said.

Yet seventy percent of Brown students who apply to medical school do so after senior year, Vassilev said.

It is possible for students to finish their chemistry requirements in two years, he added. But taking the course requirements over three years “would not be a hindrance” for students taking the MCAT, he said.

Petition authors noted that students could take a summer class to complete their requirements earlier, but pointed out disadvantages. Not everyone can afford the extra course, and it’s “unfavorable” according to medical schools to take organic chemistry in the summer because it is viewed as easier than taking it during the semester, Abbas said.

And taking a summer course prevents students from using that time for research or internships, said Kaitlyn Petitpas ’19.

Ben Potee ’19, another author of the petition, also noted that this issue poses a problem for students who switch into the pre-medical track later in college.

Hassiet Asberom ’19, another author of the petition, added that the timing of the requirements makes it more difficult to schedule a semester abroad.

“The idea that the University is putting in place these roadblocks is kind of ridiculous,” Potee said.

“If there’s no other way to provide students with the courses they need to prepare for med school, then it’s something the University should look into seriously,” Zimmt said.

But changing when these courses are offered is not easy. “This is not a simple change,” Zimmt said.

Resources are an obstacle to offering the class in both semesters, he added. “It’s not just the lecture, it’s the laboratories, it’s finding the space, it’s coordinating the space,” he said.

Last semester, about 210 first-year students enrolled in CHEM 0100 and about 350 started with CHEM 0330, Zimmt said.

Lately, enrollment for the introductory course has been much higher than in past years. Around 2010, enrollment in CHEM 0100 jumped from about 75 to 200 students and has hovered around that number for the last few years.

Students listed several reasons for enrolling in CHEM 0100 over CHEM 0330.

Potee attended an under-funded public high school in Massachusetts with a single chemistry teacher. “I took basic chemistry, and then I took AP Chemistry with her. But she wasn’t accredited, and the class was a mess,” Potee said. He shopped CHEM 0330 after doing well on the placement test, but decided to take CHEM 0100 to reinforce his foundational knowledge. “I’m really glad that I did,” he added.

But some students in CHEM 0100 could have taken CHEM 0330, Abbas said. “If you had a good high school with a good chemistry teacher that taught you well, … then really you don’t need (CHEM) 0100.”

While “there definitely are students who benefit strongly from being in CHEM 0100,” there are also students who underestimate their strengths in chemistry and would be better suited to take CHEM 0330, Zimmt said.

Hazem Abbas ’19, who also authored the petition, took AP Chemistry at his public high school in Virginia and received a score of three on the exam. His placement test score would have allowed him to start the chemistry sequence with CHEM 0330, but he decided on CHEM 0100 after shopping the more advanced class for two weeks. “I just wanted a better foundation first before I jumped into (CHEM) 0330,” Abbas said.