Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Praying for the Epiphany

The first quarter of my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota kicked my butt. I went into that year with nary a B on my record anywhere. Then I had organic chemistry. Five lectures a week with Professor Raymond Dodson. I had no idea how to learn the subject; it mystified me. Sometime in late November, the light went on and the mechanism arrows started to make sense. By that point, it was way too late for an A, but the next two quarters of organic chemistry seemed pretty easy. The organic chemistry epiphany had happened.

Mechanisms became puzzles to solve. In fact, in graduate school, I loved the Name Reaction assignments of Professor Norm Lebel at Wayne State. We were given a giant list of reactions and had to draw out the mechanisms for all of them. At the time, there weren’t the great internet resources there are now. I spent hours playing with the arrows to make each reaction work.

I have been teaching organic chemistry to high school juniors and seniors now for twenty years. My course follows the standard organic curriculum of a college course. I am blessed with six beautiful hoods and great equipment. My students graduate from high school with three solid years of chemistry under their belts: introductory, AP, and organic chemistry. Most of them are seniors and their grade at semester is the primary focus of their learning. (Yes, it would be great if this weren’t true…) Just as I did, they study and keep ‘praying for the epiphany’ to happen as we have come to say in my class.

Teaching in class sizes of between 10 and 16, I can easily see when students' arrows are not doing what they are supposed to do. I love the title of this paper, Decorating with Arrows..., as that is exactly what students do when they do not understand how to map the reaction mechanisms. Eventually, nearly all of my students attain mechanistic mastery, with the instant feedback of my small classroom an important part of the picture.

So, how to scale this kind of educational experience to those students who cannot go to my expensive private school near Detroit, MI? And do it in a way that makes students want to understand organic chemistry? In fact, design a method so that 8-year-olds or 80-year-olds or anyone in between can play the puzzles that make up organic chemistry. That’s the big idea behind my beautiful organic chemistry games.

It’s been quite a journey from my classroom into the world of start-up founder. Yes, ups and downs, pivots, roadblocks, all different kinds of metaphors are appropriate as one creates a business out of a concept. We have wireframes, game mechanics, visual design, prototypes, and a patent application. We have academic partners for beta-testing. We have a fabulous pitch deck that details the value proposition and the roadmap of sales channels. And we are building these games and they are awesome.

So, keep an eye on my Twitter feed as we move toward the launch of our first game, Chairs, this summer. The plan right now is to use that game to jumpstart a Kickstarter campaign to build Cyclo6, the mechanism game. And once that’s out, students will be playing for the epiphany instead of praying for it!

This post written for #realtimechem week. #realtimechemcarnival

Julia Winter @ochemprep

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