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Making Organic Chemistry and Scientific Literacy Approachable with UCLA Professor Neil Garg

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Southland Sessions Presents: From high school operas and drive-thru art exhibitions to Chicano comedies and underground DJ sets—we are showcasing the vibrancy of arts and culture across our city today.

Few things strike fear into the hearts of college students like the words “organic chemistry." It’s seen as a dream-crushing class that’s too hard, too focused on memorization, and designed to weed out the less determined students. 

"The students are always terrified over organic chemistry,” said Neil Garg, a distinguished professor and the Kenneth N. Trueblood Endowed Chair in Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA.

Neil Garg uses humor to create a fun and engaging learning environment. In this class, he compared the process of retrosynthesis to creating a sandwich, as a student volunteer assembled a sandwich. | Coral von Zumwalt, Courtesy of UCLA
Neil Garg uses humor to create a fun and engaging learning environment. In this class, he compared the process of retrosynthesis to creating a sandwich, as a student volunteer assembled a sandwich. | Coral von Zumwalt, Courtesy of UCLA

But for Garg, getting over those fears meant using humor and fun to get the students to think creatively about chemistry. His undergraduate class “Chem 14D - Organic Reactions and Pharmaceuticals” often features live demonstrations and video clips and has been one of the school’s most popular classes.

"We do everything we can to make the class fun, and we certainly care about making students laugh,” he said. “That can only lead to increased engagement, increased community, and ultimately, I think, better learning outcomes for those students.”

Garg, a distinguished professor and the Kenneth N. Trueblood Endowed Chair in Chemistry and Biochemistry, uses a range of innovative and out-of-the-box teaching methods to make what can be a very dry topic more fun and engaging. His students have created hundreds of chemistry-related music videos, an app that creates 3D renderings of molecules, and online science tutorials that have been watched around the world. 

Garg will respond to the question “What Is Humor?” as part of the multidisciplinary discussion series “10 Questions.” In this episode of the UCLA Arts podcast “Works In Progress,” Garg speaks about his passion for education and about using humor to get students excited about chemistry.

UCLA Arts · Neil Garg: Having fun with organic chemistry
Chem 14D is the fourth and final course in the chemistry sequence for pre-health students, and isn’t intended for chemistry or biochemistry majors. 

“These are students that are looking at medical school, and they're looking for it to be over,” Garg said.

He even polled the students in the first class, and typically only 10 percent express a high level of interest in the subject. By the end, he said, about two-thirds of the students now said they were very interested in organic chemistry.

“So we're able to really transform the students' perception of what organic chemistry is about," he said.

Neil Garg with some of his Chemistry 14D students. | Courtesy of Neil Garg
Neil Garg with some of his Chemistry 14D students. | Courtesy of Neil Garg

That includes emphasizing the practical applications of organic chemistry, from developing new medicine to creating modern technology like OLED screens. But it also means focusing on the problem-solving skills that chemists use, such as using retrosynthetic analysis to break down complex organic molecules into simpler forms. One student told Garg that he felt like Sherlock Holmes while working on challenging problems. 

While science classes often require “brute force memorization,” as Garg puts it, chemistry also requires that students learn a new vocabulary, and they can only become fluent through practice and problem solving. But those skills can then be carried forward into other courses and throughout their lives.

Garg hasn’t taught Chem 14D in a few years, though he was invited to teach an undergraduate course at Baylor University recently. He first taught undergrads in 2010, and recalls an initial feeling of disappointment at the assignment. He’d arrived at UCLA three years earlier and had spent that time teaching graduate courses and setting up his laboratory. Compared to research and publishing, addressing a lecture hall filled with hundreds of undergraduates felt like “an obligation.”

But he soon warmed to the idea, and started finding ways to add humor and fun to the class. He came up with live demonstrations. He’d ask a volunteer on the first day to work something out on the blackboard, and reward them with a beach towel printed with the periodic table.

Neil Garg teaching his Chemistry 14D students | Coral von Zumwalt, Courtesy of UCLA
Neil Garg teaching his Chemistry 14D students | Coral von Zumwalt, Courtesy of UCLA

After a student sent him a video of someone rapping about organic chemistry, he showed it to the class. When he suggested that the students could make their own organic chemistry music videos for extra credit, “the place erupted,” he said. 

Students have since made hundreds of music videos, and some are very well-made. Points are awarded based on how they incorporate organic chemistry, and added to their lowest score in the class. The extra credit points rarely make a difference in their final grade for the course, he said, “but I think it does make a difference on how they then perform on the final exam, both in terms of their knowledge and their mentality.”

His students also created short organic chemistry tutorials and started a website called Biology And Chemistry Online Notes, or BACON, which draws viewers from all over the world. The tutorials draw connections to popular culture, including science-heavy shows like “Breaking Bad” and “The Big Bang Theory.” His students also created the educational apps QR Chem, which allows students to create and upload 3D renderings of molecules, and Backside Attack, which focuses on the SN2 reaction, often one of the first reactions students of organic chemistry learn.

Garg also created “The Organic Coloring Book” with his two daughters, who were nine and four years old at the time (he also has two young sons). What started as a father-daughter bonding experience became a way to promote scientific literacy for the general public. They followed it up with “Cheesy Goes to the Doctor,” a coloring book about a mouse that learns about medicine, and a coloring book for adults is forthcoming.

"Organic chemists have not done a great job of reaching society,” Garg said. Widespread anti-science beliefs about climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, are "ultimately failures of the scientific community for not putting enough emphasis on scientific literacy for the world.”

Neil Garg will take part in the “10 Questions” discussion on Monday, Nov. 16 at 7 pm, responding to the question “What Is Humor?” alongside writer and director Dominic Taylor, and cognitive psychologist and author Scott Weems. Find more information here.

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